My, what a role reversal. Suddenly President Barack Obama of the budget-busting stimulus is the aggressive-if-not-quite-conservative budget cutter, wanting to enact more, not fewer deficit-taming spending reductions and entitlement reforms while tying them to an increase in the debt ceiling, set to be eclipsed by Aug. 2.
My, what a role reversal.
Suddenly President Barack Obama of the budget-busting stimulus is the aggressive-if-not-quite-conservative budget cutter, wanting to enact more, not fewer deficit-taming spending reductions and entitlement reforms while tying them to an increase in the debt ceiling, set to be eclipsed by Aug. 2. "Now is the time to deal with these issues. If not now, when?" he said. "I've been hearing from my Republican friends for quite some time that it is a moral imperative to tackle our debt and our deficit. What I've said to them is, 'Let's go.'"
And just as suddenly House Speaker John Boehner is the timid-if-not-quite-liberal one, wanting to put the brakes on a $4 trillion deficit reduction plan in favor of a "smaller measure" - maybe $2 trillion - while seeking yet another stopgap debt-limit increase expected to last but three months. The party that was once so bold as to propose the privatization of Medicare now fears even closing a few tax loopholes will risk alienating its base. Suddenly it's Republicans who can't keep the troops in line; it's Boehner who faces a mutiny on the right, even from his second in command, Eric Cantor.
Meanwhile, Obama seems to be betting that he'll be perceived as the fair, reasonable, "eat our peas" adult at the table by independents likely to swing the 2012 election - as the one wishing to get something done, even if it means locking horns with the liberal outliers of his own party. "If you're a progressive who cares about the integrity of Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid ... that we look after our seniors and ... the most vulnerable, then we have an obligation to ... make those changes that are required to make it sustainable over the long term," he quite correctly said. A political play? Sure. And he may have outflanked his detractors from both sides.
Even David Brooks, a generally conservative columnist for the New York Times, notes that Republicans may be overplaying their hand. In a July 4 column he wrote, "Republican leaders have ... proved effective negotiators. They have been tough and inflexible and forced the Democrats to come to them. The Democrats have agreed to tie budget cuts to the debt ceiling bill. They have agreed not to raise tax rates. They have agreed to a roughly 3-to-1 rate of spending cuts to revenue increases, an astonishing concession ...
"If the Republican Party were a normal party, it would take advantage of this amazing moment. It is being offered the deal of the century: trillions of dollars in spending cuts in exchange for a few hundred billion dollars of revenue increases ... This, as I say, is the mother of all no-brainers." Unfortunately, he went on, "the Republican Party may no longer be a normal party ... It has been infected by a faction that is more of a psychological protest than a practical, governing alternative ...
"If the debt ceiling talks fail, independent voters will see that Democrats were willing to compromise but Republicans were not. If responsible Republicans don't take control, independents will conclude that Republican fanatacism caused this default. They will conclude that Republicans are not fit to govern. And they will be right."
Indeed, Obama may have a point when he says that "the politics that swept him (Boehner) into the speakership were good for a midterm election. They are tough for governing." Some folks don't like to hear it, but in governing you don't always get everything you want. Most of the time you don't. And in reality House Republicans can't get everything they want here because Democrats control the Senate and a Democrat sits in the White House. What does no deficit-reduction deal at all do for them, especially with Obama now turning the tables and upping the ante? More importantly, what does it do for the American people? If Brooks is right, and the common perception becomes that the GOP is more interested in getting its way - 100 percent of it and not a fraction less - than in governing, the tea party could be a very shortlived phenomenon.
One hears the tea party's defense that they're just delivering on what voters said they wanted, and what they as candidates promised, in 2010. Arguably they make the common mistake of misreading what voters were telling them, of confusing dissatisfaction with Obama, with Democrats and with the status quo in general - especially where spending and the size of government are concerned - for a wholehearted embrace of them and their ideas. A late April USA Today/Gallup poll - largely confirmed by surveys since - had 76 percent of Americans, and a majority of Republicans saying any budget deal should include a combination of spending cuts and revenue increases. If these are "job crushing tax hikes" - Boehner's term - what's this high-unemployment economy's excuse right now? Is the GOP ready to ride on its 24 percent?
Beyond that, do Republicans and tea party members in particular really believe the American electorate in 2010 was voting for a future default on the nation's existing debts? That is quite the stretch. In any case, it wouldn't be the first time U.S. voters have changed their minds.