After three severe electoral rebuffs by the voters over the last two months – all of which a child could read as basic rejections of Mr. Obama’s radical program on the economy, energy, health care and national security – the president has transformed himself into the Doctor of Jobs and the Grand Poobah of Bi-partisanship. The wasted year of rank partisanship – with Mr. Obama telling those who “made the mess” to shut up – is all forgotten now in this blissful new era of good feeling, comity and common purpose, as we tackle the country’s problems together. A new golden age has dawned. Seeing Mr. Obama shaking hands with Congressional Republicans, and greeting them warmly, almost brings tears to your eyes.
Almost – but not quite. As an old song-and-dance guy, I can recognize political theater when I see it. It’s what we’re seeing now. To kick off his “bipartisanship offensive,” Mr. Obama has already put on a masterful show of meeting GOP congresspersons to take their proposals on how we can move forward on health-care, jobs, deficit-reduction and other issues. Before the TV cameras, Mr. Obama was at his best – at ease, humorous, occasionally professorial, but always in command. When one congressman asked if Mr. Obama planned to keep running deficits at 4 times his predecessor’s rate, the "prof" scolded him for bringing “talking points” to the discussion. This was Obama showing his “reasonable” side, his president-of-all-the-people side. What a terrific guy! Surely anything is possible now. The toughest problems must simply melt away in the blaze of such comradeship and good will.
But, as many a theater-groupie has discovered, what an actor seems like under the klieg lights can be far different from who he is in real life. The real Obama has no intention of actually adopting any Republican ideas on health-care, energy, jobs or national security. (Why should he, when they’re the gang “who made the mess?”) No, Mr. Obama’s proffered hand of bipartisanship is just political theater to convince the public that (1) Republicans are on board with his agenda, or (2) have no ideas except NO. If Republicans swallow the bipartisan bait, discouraged GOP voters might not bother voting in November. And independent voters will (hopefully) flock back to Democrats – the only party with any real ideas.
The latest Obama-gambit is a bipartisan commission to recommend ways to cut the deficit. The Congress wouldn’t buy this, so Mr. Obama created his own commission by executive order. He wants Republicans to help recommend spending cuts and tax increases that will reduce the current $1.3 trillion deficit. It’s a cunning ploy that seeks to get Republicans to accept the current budget’s legitimacy. A few cosmetic cuts might even result from the effort, but the primary product of the commission – heavily stacked with Democrats – would be new taxes, for which Republicans would share the blame and the political punishment. It is the trap of all traps. If Republican representatives and senators fall into it, they will take voters’ wrath in the fall no less than Democrats who joyfully spent like drunken sailors during 2009.
Mr. Obama speaks of the federal budget and deficit as though some other agent is responsible for the outlandish expenditures. His deficit for just one year ($1.3 trillion) exceeds the total red ink the “spendthrift” G. W. Bush racked up across both of his terms ($1 trillion). By pointing this out, I don’t mean to let Mr. Bush off the hook, but he was engaged in seven years of war. Mr. Obama has been ending the war in Iraq, while taking liberal spending to an entirely new level. The more budgetary items come to light, the more outraged the public becomes. The budget is his and no one else’s. It is implicitly deceptive for him to act as though these huge deficits simply happened, like a hurricane or a snowstorm.
By spending lavishly, then trying to enlist Republicans to balance the books, Democrats are trying to repeat history – a very successful history for them. From the 1930s up through 1980, Democrats won election after election by doling out popular benefits, while Republicans acted as “tax collectors for the welfare state” and lost those elections. Wags used to joke that the Republican platform was “vote for us – we’re not as bad as you think,” and “we want what Democrats want, only not so much…” Democrats knew the quintessential secret of 20th-century American politics: there is no constituency for either spending cuts or tax increases. They made sure both got pinned on Republicans for 50 years.
But all parties – even great ones – have to end sometime. Here I mean fun parties, not political ones. (I might have said “orgies,” but this is a family newspaper.) It was inevitable that Republicans would finally realize why they were always losers. Finally, an ex-Democrat named Ronald Reagan said, “Let’s not play that game anymore.” After a 50-year losing streak, Republicans were ready to listen. With the country in a complete tailspin under Jimmy Carter, the GOP had its chance to try a different strategy.
Mr. Reagan was fiscally conservative – meaning that he didn’t believe in deficit spending – but he did believe government could raise more revenue by lowering taxes than by raising them. And he saw that reasonable expenditures for voter-friendly programs were a winner. His views proved correct, and the country went on an 8-year run of expansion, growth, and increased federal revenues.
Somewhere along the way, Republicans exchanged the Reagan recipe for success for nonsense like “a kinder and gentler conservatism” and “compassionate conservatism.” Democrats got their chance to take the reins again when the economy crashed from the subprime mortgage crisis. Enter Barack Obama and his message of “hope and change,” and voila! The stage was set for a reprise of the old winning strategy.
Grandma always said, “You can never go back.” (Now that I’m a grandpa, I see how right she was.) Although a few Republicans look almost ready to get into the old tax-collector harness, too many are wise to the Dems’ trap to fall into it. Mr. Obama isn’t the only one who understands political theater now. That’s why he will do contortions to make himself look bipartisan, while Republicans sidestep, shuffle, and do the hokey-pokey to make it look like they’re dancing too. In the end, the GOP will “slip out the back, Jack,” while Mr. Obama and Democrats take a well-deserved fall for spending the country to the edge of ruin and trying to ram a hated health-care reform bill down the public’s throat.
As Mr. Reagan might have said, we’re not playing that game any longer. Large numbers of voters understand that there’s a better way. Real “change” is on the way. It can’t come too soon.