That's what I asked Al, as I eased into my usual counter-seat in his coffee shop and ordered my usual jumbo caramel extra-robust espresso skim-latte, with double amontillado.
Al put a cup of regular coffee in front of me and said, "Try it black for a change. Consider it a symbolic gesture of bi-partisanship..."
Al said he assumed I meant the mad rush to pass the Stimulus Bill, now being debated, amended and dissected by the Senate. Mr. Obama has now taken off the gloves and is pummeling the senators - especially Republicans - for dragging their feet on this vital piece of legislation. He said the delay in passing the bill is "inexcusable and irresponsible". In comments earlier this week the president said delaying or failing to pass the trillion-dollar spending bill could turn "crisis into catastrophe". He has also denounced GOP calls for more tax cuts as a continuation of the same "failed policies" of the last eight years that produced the crisis he has inherited.
Al said there are at least two principal reasons for the president's mighty effort to get the bill passed quickly. First, there's a rush to get the bill enacted before more details come out about what's in it. Every passing day produces new disclosures of the absurd items hidden in the bill's hundreds of pages. As those items are revealed, voters become more and more disgusted, and opposition to the bill grows. Negativity is now bumping close to 50%, while support has dropped into the 30% range. Even liberal Senator Diane Feinstein has announced that she can't support the bill unless she believes it really will produce jobs. (Expenditures like $350 million for condoms might produce activity, but one doubts if it can be classified as "jobs.)
"Beating the economy-clock is the second reason for the rush," said Al. He went on to explain that recessions usually have brief lifetimes - sometimes a few years, but often only months. It's unlikely that this one will become another Great Depression (which lasted eleven years), unless our government takes steps - either unwittingly or by design - to prolong it. The American economy has the strength and resilience to pull us out of an economic trough - even one caused by a serious failure of economic institutions, like the current one.
Democrats know the economy will recover. They want to pass the stimulus bill so they can take credit for the recovery, when it happens. If the bill doesn't pass, the crisis of the recession will be "wasted", as White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel put it. Voters will see that they don't need Democrats' economy-fixes. This realization will mess up Democrats' plan to use large-scale expenditures to "save" us. Democrats think the solution to every problem is more spending (and more taxes). If voters come to see this as unnecessary, Democrats will be in big trouble.
House Republicans saw through the unseemly haste of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, as she rammed her massive spending bill through on a strict party-line vote. Not one Republican supported it. Indeed, eleven Democrats joined GOP members in opposing it. This disappointing response to Mr. Obama's calls for "bipartisan" support was entirely due to the bill's carloads of pork and its failure to designate very much stimulus-money for the near term. Only a small sliver of the funds authorized by the House's bill would be spent in the 2009-10 time frame.
The Senate presents a different political challenge to Democrats' attempt to secure funding for a gazillion progressive projects that have been moldering in the back room for donkey's years. Under Senate rules, a super-majority of sixty votes is needed to pass most legislation. There are 58 Democratic senators, although Senator Edward Kennedy will probably not attend sessions, due to illness. Assuming that all 57 remaining Democratic senators line up behind the bill (or some version of it), three Republicans would have to cross the aisle to bring the "ayes" up to 60 for passage. The two Republican senators from Maine - Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins - look like possible supporters, although each has said she cannot support the engorged bill in its present form. Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) might also support the bill, thus furnishing the 60th yes-vote - provided that no Democrats defect.
This sets the stage for a dramatic Senate showdown over an enormous package of spending that will add nearly 10% to the national debt in a single stroke. There is no economic consensus on the bill's salutary effect on the economy, but Mr. Obama and the Democrats do not care. They know they cannot lose by enacting the bill in any form - the bigger the better. If the economy recovers quickly, they will point to the stimulus bill as the cure, and they will have bragging rights for a generation on how they "saved" us from the ruin of George W's "failed" economy.
On the other hand, if the economy slogs along in deepening recession - perhaps exacerbated by a trillion dollars in new debt, spent on worthless projects - Mr. Obama will claim that Republicans prevented him from doing enough to get the country moving again. He will ask for a second round, a third round - perhaps numerous rounds - of lavish spending to blast us loose from the sticky mud of "Bush-ism". He will assure us that the Bush tax cuts caused it all.
Reputable economists point out that spending shocks on this scale are almost certain to revive the sleeping dragon of inflation. In the long run, there will be hell to pay for this in-your-face display of classic liberal profligacy. Smart Democrats must know this, but they are willing to risk the derivative problems in order to gain the economic and social power they desire.
What, then, are we to make of Mr. Obama's calls for bipartisanship on the stimulus package? "That's simple," says Al. "He wants to cover his butt in case the economy really implodes. He would like Republicans to share some of the blame if the whole crack-brained spending scheme fails to revive the economy and brings back a roaring inflation. Maybe he can even manage to blame Republicans for the whole mess. The more he dulls Republicans' distinctive ‘edge', the better it is for his party. The GOP will no longer be an alternative. They will be swallowed up by ‘Obamaism'."
Al has a point, but I'm not sure if I believe that Mr. Obama is quite that cynical. Maybe I'm still mesmerized by that smooth style - the impeccable suit, toothy smile and disarming candidness. Or maybe I'm too much a product of my own Evangelical upbringing, for I simply can't believe an entire political party would risk bankrupting the country, damaging its currency and wounding its people - perhaps irreparably - just to gain political power.
Al says I need to get real - that this is the "new politics". Maybe he's right, but I hope not.