The Art of the Deal

The White House has put out a video of Pres. Obama telling a group of college students that when it comes to politics they should clip their wings. You can see the entire video here (it’s only a little over three minutes long), but the stand-out line is Obama telling the students, “Don’t set up a situation where you’re guaranteed to be disappointed.”

Joan Walsh is justifiably dismayed, and points out that the right does not operate with this assumption that they will get less than everything they want — and that, in fact, the straightest road to power and influence in the contemporary Republican Party is via intransigence:

Meanwhile, across the aisle, there’s a vivid example of how dissenters and unyielding partisans and people unafraid of disappointment can move the country in the direction they want to take it. The debt ceiling crisis is a scandal, but you have to politically admire the 2010 House freshmen who have caused the crisis. They genuinely believe government is too big. They genuinely believe cutting government, and taxes, will liberate the free market to put people back to work and end this economic slump. Let’s leave aside the fact that there’s no evidence for these beliefs, and treat the beliefs as sincere. The House GOP hardliners either don’t believe there will be a debt crisis, or else they believe the crisis will hit, but that it’s long overdue, and in the end, after a little economic and maybe even political suffering, it will bring about the world they would like it to create.

That is scary apocalyptic thinking, to me, but it’s also politically effective. They don’t want to compromise, or take their marching orders from their leaders, because they believe their leaders are part of a dysfunctional bipartisan alliance that’s created these deficits. And they’re right. A small part of me sympathizes with the Tea Party zealots, watching John Boehner and Mitch McConnell trying to humor them, even trick them, into ultimately caving on the debt issue. So as early as Tuesday, they’ll let them vote for the preposterous “Cut, Cap and Balance bill,” which will fail, and then, having once it’s failed, party leaders will sorrowfully force the rank and file to go for whatever deal they broker with Democrats. Or at least they’ll try to. It’s possible that their transparent manipulations will backfire. What if the Tea Party freshmen realize they’re being played, and refuse to play along? I have real questions about whether the GOP leadership can really ever broker a deal that brings along a majority of these freshmen. …

And what about our side of the aisle? The president has promised to reject any deal that contains only spending cuts, no revenue increases. Let’s hope he sticks to that. One thing that would strengthen his resolve might be Democrats to his left who won’t vote for such a deal even if he says he backs it. Yes, they would be joining the GOP extremists in playing chicken with the debt ceiling, but it’s worth playing that out for a while. Obama should have to deal with hard-liners in his own caucus, the way Boehner and McConnell do, so he can say with honesty that his hardliners, like theirs, make a complete cave-in impossible. …

On the other hand, what if all Democrats accept the president’s enshrining compromise itself as a high political value, not just a means to an end but an end in itself? In this battle, that would set us up for spending cuts that not only hurt the people we most care about, but probably hurt most Democrats politically, killing jobs and sucking more demand out of an economy already stalled by the lack of demand. There’s are points where it’s clear that Obama is reckoning with genuine political reality, and employing maturity and sobriety along the way. Then there’s a point where you wonder: Is the president’s commitment to compromise accomodating political reality, or creating political reality? …

In his conversation with the students, Obama used Abraham Lincoln’s inconsistency, in the Emancipation Proclamation, toward slavery — ending it in the states that seceded from the Union while continuing to permit it in slaveholding states that remained loyal to the Union. Walsh argues that there was considerable opposition among abolitionists to this double standard. It was viewed as compromising with evil — which plainly it was. Nevertheless, we look back now and mostly agree that Lincoln’s larger goal of keeping the Union together necessitated this compromise.

MahaBarbara sees a lesson in this historical reality:

… I’ve brought up before that abolitionist leaders opposed Lincoln’s nomination for the 1860 presidential election, because he wasn’t “pure” enough on the slavery issue. Lincoln was willing to compromise and protect slavery in the slave states, in exchange for preserving the Union, and the abolitionists weren’t having it. I don’t recall if there was another candidate the abolitionists rallied behind, but if there was, he wasn’t Abraham Lincoln.

And the moral is, sometimes holding out for “perfect” is stupid. Sometimes you gotta go with what you can get. And sometimes, events take over and go in their own directions in ways that leaders didn’t anticipate. Emancipation finally happened, less because of but in spite of Lincoln’s plans when he entered office. A series of compromises and unforeseen events freed the slaves; Lincoln was just an instrument.

This is not to say that I think President Obama’s political and policy judgments are always right, but neither do I think his policy compromises represent the policies he wants and planned for all along, as some among us brainlessly rant.

I would not use the word “brainlessly,” because this view — that Obama accepts or negotiates for less progressive outcomes because he wants less progressive outcomes — is held by some people whose intelligence and perceptiveness I deeply admire and respect. And if I am to be honest, I have to acknowledge that, in the anger and even despair I sometimes feel about the Obama administration’s failure to make the changes that were promised in his campaign, I have felt this way.

That said, Barbara’s view makes sense to me, at least in the context of the debt ceiling crisis. It’s not the same kind of issue as Obama’s reneging on his promise to close Guantanamo; or his refusal to prosecute those Bush officials who designed, legally justified, and carried out the C.I.A.’s torture program; or the Obama administration’s continuance of Bush-era Constitution-shredding surveillance programs. In my view, those are absolute issues of morality and law.

I think it’s legitimate to distinguish between compromising on issues like that, and negotiating an imperfect deal that prevents the United States from defaulting on its debt.


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