March 4, 2013 · 5 Comments
By Marie Burns:
In his column in today’s New York Times, former Times executive editor Bill Keller takes a first-class seat on the Village Express to proclaim, in vernacular Village-speak, that the sequester is “Obama’s Fault.” (Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Keller, Assistant Village Economist Paul Robert Samuelson of the Washington Post was busy one-upping him with a column blaming President Kennedy for the sequester. [You read that right.] Economist Dean Baker deftly disposes of Samuelson’s unique thesis.)
Keller does cite “the pigheaded Republican Party, cowed by its angry, antispending, antitaxing, anti-Obama base.” Before launching into his attack on the President, Keller gives Obama credit for “pulling the country back from the brink of depression by pumping some stimulus into the system (thumbs up for that).” He does not, however, mention the inconvenient truths that every Republican in the House voted against the stimulus bill, and that only by reducing the stimulus and by making tax cuts a large part of it did Obama get the votes of a few moderate Senate Republicans. According to Keller, Obama should have wrapped up the stimulus, then got together with Republicans to make “hard choices.” Alas, instead he had the audacity to create yet another “entitlement,” as Keller puts it: the Affordable Care Act. Keller claims he doesn’t “fault him for putting health care at the front of the line” even as he faults Obama for putting health care on the front line. Keller does not remind readers that only one House Republican, Joseph Cao (Louisiana), voted for ObamaCare. (Cao, a one-term member who beat William Freezer-Stuffed-with-Bribe-Money Jefferson (D), did not cast his vote until Democratic cleared the votes for passage.) More important, as Steve Benen of the Rachel Maddow Show points out today, Keller has the impact of the Affordable Care Act
… backwards. — ‘Obamacare’ … reduc[es] the deficit and help[s] control health care costs in the coming years. The law, in other words, is a critical component of the larger agenda that Keller hoped Obama would pursue — making politically difficult choices that serves public needs in a way that helps bring the budget closer to balance…. Keller should be praising the president’s efforts on this front, not criticizing them.
Also inconsequential to Keller: on Inauguration Day 2009, top Republicans got together and agreed to defeat every Obama-backed legislative initiative. Later, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who did not attend that meeting, concurred with its decision: “Well that is true, [making Obama a one-term President is] my single most important political goal along with every active Republican in the country.” The lengths to which Republicans have gone to carry out this agenda have not been equaled in modern history – from the Senate’s filibustering nearly every important piece of legislation and many qualified nominees to the House’s lockstep opposition to Democratic legislation, to their very real threat to undermine the faith and credit of the U.S. Treasury. Yet all of this bad behavior, in Keller’s view, is just a sideshow. The real problem – the real reason the sequester is Obama’s fault – is that Obama did not finesse Republican obstinacy.
Keller glosses over the debt ceiling crisis, and rather than explicitly blaming Congress for holding the government hostage, he argues that “the president was unwise to let Republican zealots get away with such blackmail.” Get that? It is the President’s fault that he allowed GOP “zealots” to “blackmail” him. This is a classic blame-the-victim argument, albeit one with a nasty twist: since a person can only be blackmailed if he has something to hide, Keller seems to suggest House Republicans had the goods on Obama. In fact, the only things they had on Obama were control of the House and a willingness to be utterly reckless.
Keller then makes the point that in December 2012 Obama should not have allowed the GOP to kick the sequester can down the road. This isn’t a bad argument, but Keller should acknowledge – as he does not – that Republicans would have shut down the government and defaulted on the debt last December. If you think a government shutdown and creating an international financial crisis would have forced Republicans to be “reasonable,” then Keller has a good argument here. Indeed, Keller’s entire “solution” rests on the premise that Obama has the power to force House Republicans to be “reasonable”:
If Obama had held firm and let the Bush tax cuts expire for everyone, as [Keller] recommended at the time, he would now have at his disposal a powerful inducement for both parties to come together. A bargain could be built around restoring the lower rates for most taxpayers. With an actual, large tax cut at the heart of it, you just might construct the kind of big bipartisan bargain that has been so elusive. But it’s too late for that.
Reading Keller, a person would not know that that the U.S. Constitution provides for a divided system of government. As E. J. Dionne of the Washington Post wrote last week,
The air of establishment Washington is filled with talk that Obama must ‘lead.’ But Obama cannot force the House Republican majority to act if it doesn’t want to. He is (fortunately) not a dictator. What Obama can do is expose the cause of this madness, which is the dysfunction of the Republican Party. Journalists don’t like saying this because it sounds partisan. But the truth is the truth, whether it sounds partisan or not.
Keller’s ignorance of the structure of the federal government would be a little more forgivable if he had not also been warned, by – among numerous others – the President of the United States and David Firestone of the New York Times editorial board. Just last Friday, as Keller was polishing his piece, Firestone wrote, right there in the Times,
President Obama is obviously sick and tired of the widely peddled notion that the sequester and all other budget failures are ultimately his fault because he’s the president. His frustration made for a surprisingly lively news conference this morning, and gave the public a brief reminder that there are real limits to the power of the White House….
Republicans won’t negotiate in earnest. They appear before TV cameras every day to complain about the president’s ‘refusal to lead,’ and manage to spread the idea that he’s responsible for their stubbornness — even though he has offered to meet them halfway.
As the President said in the aforementioned press conference,
I’m not a dictator, I’m the president. I know that this has been some of the conventional wisdom that’s been floating around Washington that somehow, even though most people agree that I’m being reasonable, that most people agree I’m presenting a fair deal, the fact that they don’t take it means that I should somehow, you know, do a Jedi mind-meld with these folks and convince them to do what’s right.
I can trace the origin of the Jedi mind-meld (apparently Obama mixed science fiction stories to come up with his version). Here’s Matt Yglesias of Slate, writing two days before Obama made his remark:
… the conventions of deficit scoldery mandate that the mere existence of disagreement shows that both sides must be to blame. Thus the Washington Post editorial board concludes that ‘Republicans are wrong to resist further revenue hikes’ but still wonders ‘why is Mr. Obama not leading the way to a solution?’ David Brooks complains that Obama ‘has become a participant’ in ‘stale debates’ and should instead unilaterally ‘fundamentally shift the terms’ of politics. Ron Fournier at National Journal says Obama is ‘ultimately responsible for the success or failure’ of negotiations, no matter what his opponents say.
This is pernicious nonsense. The president of the United States has many powers at his disposal, but the ability to pull a Jedi mind trick and force congressional opponents to agree to deals they don’t favor isn’t among them.(Emphasis added; links original.)
Brendan Nyhan, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review, also calls out the Village Idiots:
While it’s true that the president does have some agenda-setting power, these commentators greatly overstate Obama’s ability to create political consensus through proposals and rhetoric (absent him simply yielding to GOP demands). As the political scientist John Sides pointed out on Twitter, “No theory of political or policy change should hinge on how presidents ‘talk.’” Green Lantern-ites have been seduced by the myth of the bully pulpit and do not seem to appreciate the relatively limited powers of the president on domestic policy issues.
Like all good Village People, a/k/a Very Serious People, Keller is hung up on whatever it is he thinks the Simpson-Bowles plan is (as Dean Baker points out, there is no Simpson-Bowles plan):
If Obama had campaigned on some version of Simpson-Bowles rather than on poll-tested tax hikes alone, he could now claim a mandate from voters to do something big and bold. Most important, he would have some leverage with members of his own base who don’t want to touch Medicare even to save it. This was missed opportunity No. 1.
To the contrary, if we are going to hold the President responsible for the impasse, then Robert Kuttner of the American Prospect puts his finger on Obama’s real error:
Obama’s miscalculation began in his fi[r]st term, with his embrace of the premise that substantial deficit cutting was both politically expected and economically necessary, and his appointment of the 2010 Bowles-Simpson Commission as the expression of that mistaken philosophy. Although the Commission’s plan was never carried out, its prestige and Obama’s parentage of it locked the president into a deflationary deficit reduction path.
Greg Sargent of the Washington Post points out today that Obama has repeatedly invoked Simpson and Bowles’ deficit reduction philosophy in both word and deed. His FY 2013 “budget proposed nearly $480 billion in spending cuts — several hundred billion of which were to Medicare.” He has spoken favorably of the Simpson-Bowles committee in his Democratic convention speech and elsewhere. As political scientist Jonathan Bernstein reminds us, “… Obama asked for less in revenues than Simpson-Bowles did…. Obama is closer to the Republican position on taxes, and probably overall, than Simpson-Bowles.” That is, Keller has it ass-backwards again.
Obama’s actual mistake – part of a continuing act reasserted again today before his Cabinet meeting (video here) – is to buy into the notion that cuts to social safety net programs are necessary to save the programs, and that deficit reduction is the moral thing to do. As David Atkins of Hullabaloo wrote,
The … President has some culpability in the affair as well…. We have unspecified discretionary cuts, as well as specified, real cuts to Medicare. That’s the President’s own plan. We also know that cuts to Social Security and increases to the retirement age have been on the table from the White House. Meanwhile, Republicans are refusing to give any ground on revenues. One side advocates lots of cuts and a few tax increases. The other side advocates only cuts. It’s hard to blame just the press for implicitly placing cuts on a higher moral pedestal.
Keller’s argument assumes two premises: one is that, as Atkins implies, the Village People are certain that Debt and Deficits are Immoral. Mitt Romney said so explicitly, right on his campaign Website: “We have a moral responsibility not to spend more than we take in.” John Boehner said so, too, when he was speaking to a group of religious leaders: “We have a moral responsibility to address the problems we face. That means working together to cut spending and rein in government.” That just isn’t true. It is bad fiscal policy to accumulate debt and run up the deficit during good economic times – as happened, for instance, during George W. Bush’s first term. “Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter,” Vice President Cheney famously said in 2001. However, in extraordinary circumstances: the Great Depression, World War II, the Great Recession of 2009 (it’s still here!), then it is arguably immoral not to incur debt if that is what is necessary to spur the economy or fund a necessary war.
The second premise is that Republicans will act reasonably for the good of the country – if Obama treats them right. Ezra Klein of the Washington Post, who used to be a liberal, wrote a version of that argument this past weekend, when he claimed that House Republicans would act reasonably if they only knew what-all was in Obama’s budget plan. (Apparently they and their staffs are incapable of using the Googles and/or finding the White House Website.) Klein cited “one of the most respected Republicans in Congress,” who claimed it would be a game-changer for Obama to put “chained-CPI — a policy that reconfigures the way the government measures inflation and thus slows the growth of Social Security benefits — on the table.” To the consternation of liberals, Obama has had “chained CPI” “on the table” (and on his Website) for some time. It is not a closely-guarded state secret. Maybe he should put chained CPI on the Benghazi page.
Jonathan Chait of New York magazine was not convinced by Klein’s “poor communications” theory: “… if Obama could get hold of Klein’s mystery legislator and inform him of his budget offer, it almost certainly wouldn’t make a difference. He would come up with something – the cuts aren’t real, or the taxes are awful, or they can’t trust Obama to carry them out, or something.”
Sure enough, Klein had to back off his pollyannish claim when a real-world Twitter feud developed over the weekend between prominent Republican strategist Mike Murphy v. Others. Murphy perfectly mimicked Chait’s hypothesis: he repeatedly moved the goalposts when others pointed out that Obama had already agreed to each of Murphy’s escalating demands. Except the last one! “… as long as the GOP’s position is they won’t compromise, there’s not going to be a compromise,” Klein admitted.
As if to issue a warning to Keller not to make a fool of himself, yesterday Paul Krugman of the New York Times commented on Klein’s epiphany:
… it’s not just Republicans who refuse to accept it when Obama gives them what they want; the same applies, with even less justification, to centrist pundits…. The centrist ideal – deficit reduction via a mix of revenue increases and benefits cuts – is what Obama is already offering; in fact, his proposals have been to the right of Bowles-Simpson. Yet the centrist pundits keep demanding that Obama offer what he has already offered, and condemn both sides equally (or even place most of the blame on Obama) for the failure to reach a deal. Again, informing them of their error wouldn’t help; their whole shtick is about blaming both sides, and they will always invent some reason why Obama just isn’t doing it right.
Krugman was hardly the first to alert Keller that his major premise was nonsense. Brendan Nyhan warned the Villagers last week,
The media should instead focus greater attention on Congress, which writes the tax and budget legislation that determines how the federal government spends its money. Obama has relatively little leverage over the Republicans who control the House of Representatives, almost all of whom represent districts he lost in 2012.
And Matt Yglesias wrote in that same “Jedi” post,
Boehner needs to acknowledge that Obama has repeatedly been offering the kind of large spending cuts that Republicans say they want, and learn to take yes for an answer. Tax revenue is the price Obama has consistently demanded in exchange for spending cuts, and Boehner could be statesman of the decade by agreeing to take the deal.
John Boehner is not inclined to “take yes for an answer” and become “the statesman of the decade.” He and other Republicans think they have a political incentive to display ignorance – whether pretended or real – of Obama’s offers: they hope to slip another one past a public sick of trying to comprehend the latest crisis of their creation.
My question is this: What is Bill Keller’s excuse?
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com
Illustration above: Keller surrounded by unnamed Village People.
This column has been updated to include references to Steve Benen’s, Greg Sargent’s and Jonathan Bernstein’s posts.