John Boehner complained yesterday that dealing with the White House is like dealing with Jell-O. This reminded me of the late Dainin Katagiri Roshi, a Japanese Zen master who brought Soto Zen to Minnesota. He used to tell his students, “fighting with me is like fighting with tofu.” The Roshi appeared to offer no resistance, yet didn’t change shape. It’s like kung fu. The Roshi usually got his way.
So where are we this morning on the debt ceiling?
Old CW: The President is a spineless appeaser.
New CW: The President is Jascha Heifetz, Republicans are the violin.
This is the opinion of Lawrence O’Donnell, from last night’s The Last Word.
The normally disciplined congressional Republicans are now in an all-out panic in the most difficult negotiation they have faced to date with President Barack Obama. As the President holds to his bluff that he wants a big deal, a $4 trillion deficit reduction package, the Republican leadership has gone from retreat, from $4 trillion to $2 trillion, then to yesterday’s surrender position outlined by Republican Senator Mitch McConnell to today’s total outright confusion about what to do, or think, next. They should, by now, have realized that they were tricked by the President into weeks of discussion of trillions in possible spending cuts.
Eric Cantor and John Boehner, the lead Republican negotiators, went into those discussions with the Vice President and the President with no real experience in negotiating anything this big, anything half as big as this with an opposition party. They forgot the maxim often repeated by participants to the press, nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to, and with some of the Democrats at the table doing the smart thing, continuing to smile and nod as the Republicans targeted spending cuts they would like, the rookie Republican negotiators made the mistake of thinking they had reached areas of agreement with the Democrats when, in fact, absolutely nothing had been agreed to, not one dollar, not one spending cut had been agreed to because everything was never agreed to.
Naively thinking they were making progress in those negotiations with the White House, which, it turns out, really were only discussions, not negotiations, the rookie Republican negotiators were lulled into allowing the clock to run down on the time left before the Treasury risks default and hits the debt ceiling on August 2nd. The President timed his changing of the subject to taxation perfectly. Once the republicans realized the president was truly insistent, not bluffing in any way about the need to include additional tax revenue in any sized deficit reduction package, they abandoned the negotiations. They gave up on $4 trillion, then they gave up on $2 trillion, because any package they negotiated, the President was insisting, must have tax revenue in it, any package of any size, so the Republicans had nowhere to go, there was no size package they could negotiate.
The naive Eric Cantor proudly and very loudly refused to attend any more meetings as soon as the President became insistent on taxation. That, of course, gave the President exactly what he needed at that time — the image of the reasonable man trying to do the responsible thing but unable to secure the cooperation of some irresponsible juveniles who would sooner run away than fulfill their oath of office and bear the responsibilities of leadership.
America’s moneyed interests, who spend millions trying to keep Republicans in charge of the tax code so that they will save billions in taxation in their corporations and their personal fortunes, looked on with increasing alarm. Now those moneyed interests are desperately trying to teach economically illiterate Republicans in Congress that there are worse things that can happen to their wealth than taxation. The Huffington Post reports today the Citigroup report issued this week says, “asking what the U.S. economy might look like after a possible U.S. Treasury default is akin to asking what you will do after you commit suicide.”
Having taken the debt ceiling hostage for the last six months, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, who have finally made it clear the debt ceiling must be raised, are trying and failing to figure out how to release their hostage without suffering a unanimous press judgment that they were beaten badly in this hostage taking, humiliated really, by President Obama, the same president whose reaction to hostage taking by Somali pirates was to shoot them in the head.
The President’s calm — no, not his calm, his deadly coldness — face-to-face with these inexperienced, incompetent political hostage takers has thrown them and their usually bombastic cheerleaders cowering in fear. Consider the lead editorial today in Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal, normally a champion of the most ludicrous republican policies and strategies, encouraging, which is to say ordering, a full surrender on the part of Republicans on the debt ceiling, saying of Mitch McConnell’s strategic surrender yesterday, “Who can blame them?”
They have finally caught on to what they say today has been, quote, “The President’s strategy all along, take the debt limit talks behind closed doors, make major spending cuts seem possible in the early days, but then hammer Republicans publicly as the deadline nears for refusing to raise taxes on business and the rich.”
Murdoch’s editorial writers who normally find themselves in fundamental agreement with the right-wing blogosphere are now trying to put down any possible mutiny against the McConnell surrender. Quote, “The hotter precincts of the blogosphere were calling this a sellout yesterday, though they might want to think before they shout. The debt ceiling is going to be increased one way or another, and the only question has been what if anything Republicans could get in return. If Mr. Obama insists on a tax increase, and Republicans wonâ€™t vote for one, then whatâ€™s the alternative to Mr. McConnellâ€™s maneuver?”
The president’s statements about what may or may not happen to Social Security checks in the event of a debt ceiling crisis has inspired the Murdoch editorial writers to advise freshman tea party Republicans to not trust the polls they are looking at today. Quote, “The polls that now find that voters oppose a debt limit increase will turn on a dime when Americans start learning that they won’t get Social Security checks.”
If the Republicans had a plan that they thought would work when they took the debt ceiling hostage, it could only have been the misguided expectation that when the moment came for the presidential decision in these discussions, Barack Obama would simply cave to the hostage takers’ demands. Ironically, others who shared that view as the possible outcome, here on the left side of our politics, have positions in the blogosphere and megaphones in which they have relentlessly trumpeted their distrust of Barack Obama’s strength of character and his command of presidential power.
As of tonight, the one person who we know is not panicking about what to do next is Barack Obama. Eric Cantor, however, has just described the meeting tonight at the white house this way to reporters. He, the president, got very agitated, said that he had sat there long enough, that Ronald Reagan wouldn’t sit here like this, and that he’s reached the point that something’s got to give. A democratic aide tells NBC, Cantor’s account of tonight’s meeting is completely overblown.
I’m going out on a limb and predict that McConnell’s surrender will have to be substantially modified before President Obama will accept it. The debt ceiling will be raised once, enough to cover expenses until 2013. Some spending cuts may be agreed to, but there will be no agreement to extend the Bush tax cuts for the rich.
Other Stuff to Read:
John Nichols, “ALEC Exposed.”
Steve Benen, “When There’s No Method to the Madness.”
Nate Silver, “GOP’s No-Tax Stance Is Outside Political Mainstream.”
Updated — More Other Stuff to Read: