Only totally mad Francophiles remember the 1960 François Truffaut film Shoot the Piano Player – with Charles Aznavour as the brilliant concert pianist who chooses to play pop junk in a Paris dive bar where no one knows who he really is. He’s hiding and the movie is appropriately all black-and-white deep-shadows noir – very moody, with cold rain and that sort of thing. It should be dark and moody. The problem is that this piano player comes from a family of thugs, who he’d just as soon forget, but of course no one can hide forever. The family’s enemies are out to kill him for some reason or other – or for no particular reason at all. They decide they need to shoot the piano player, even if he’s nobody, to make a point. They’ll shoot him because they can, to prove they can. It’s a power thing, and thus Charles Aznavour spends a lot of time being very careful, and soulful and poetic too, as this is a French film after all. It’s also emblematic. Those who are willing to shoot get their way. The rest of us are helpless. We pay the price for stuff that has nothing to do with us, stuff that we thought we could walk away from. Thugs get their way. C’est la vie.
Such films are an acquired taste, but then we all know how that meek piano player felt, because as much as we’d like to forget Washington politics – work and family and the bills are more pressing – the same thing happens there too. There was this New Year’s Eve and all that business about the fiscal cliff. At the stroke of midnight all the Bush tax cuts were set to expire, so everyone’s taxes would jump up immediately and a whole lot of buying power would disappear from the economy instantaneously, plunging us back into a severe recession, or worse. And all those automatic deep across-the-board spending cuts would kick in too – decimating the already meager social safety net, hobbling the military horribly, and also putting a lot of government contractors, even those who just supply paperclips, out of business. Millions would be unemployed in an instant, and the Republicans held the gun, ready to shoot.
They’d shoot – they’d let all this happen – unless Obama and the Democrats dropped their insistence that the tax rates go back to normal for the rich, who had done so well as the rest of the nation got hammered for five years or more. It was tax breaks for millionaires or billionaires too, or they’d shoot. They also demanded there be deep cuts to Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid – specified by Obama so they could go back to their constituents and say look what Obama did to you – or everything would be cut as scheduled, assuring catastrophe. There had to be targeted specific spending cuts to social programs, and not the military at all, or they’d pull the trigger. The government should do less. FDR with his New Deal and LBJ with his Great Society had been fools and this had to stop now. The national debt was too big.
This sort of thing can make you feel like Truffaut’s piano player. Someone with a gun is out to get you, even if you’ve done nothing to them and have been keeping the lowest of profiles. New Year’s Eve was Kathy and Anderson from Times Square, and breathless reports from the Senate, where they were trying to work these things out, which they did. The Republicans folded, deciding not to shoot. Perhaps they didn’t want to be seen as thugs, and Joe Biden, acting for Obama, gave them a little something they could claim as a victory – taxes would go up on those earning over four hundred grand a year, not the quarter million Obama had been insisting on for over a year. Yeah, it was fig leaf, but there was no point in humiliating these guys. All spending would remain in place. Decisions about any spending cuts, automatic or targeted, were tabled – put off for three months. No one pulled any trigger.
The Senate sent this over to the House, which found the whole thing totally unacceptable, because the House is firmly in the hands of the Republicans – this was their show now. Then they found it all acceptable, even if it wasn’t easy. John Boehner couldn’t convince most of his folks to vote for it – Paul Ryan and Boehner’s second-in-command and many others voted no – so Boehner was reduced to finding a way to pass this Senate thing with the few Republicans who didn’t want to pull the trigger and shoot America, to prove they could, and every Democrat in the House. John Boehner had a bad New Year’s Day, but at least America didn’t get shot dead. Obama then signed all this into law.
That wasn’t the end of it of course. Like in the Truffaut film there were still guys in the shadows, with guns, and the issue became the debt limit. That needs to be raised, as we need to borrow a bit more to pay our bills for what we’ve already spent, spending authorized and approved by Congress. But the Republican thinking was that we shouldn’t do that. We should just declare that we would not pay our bills, thus destroying the bond markets and crashing the world’s economy as there would be no more safe haven anywhere for capital – unless Obama did exactly what the Republicans want. He’d have to make those massive cuts in Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid, and if they want, abolish all taxes on the rich too, and abandon Obamacare, and they really mean it this time. They’ll pull the trigger. Obama of course dared them to. There’d be no tricks with a trillion dollar platinum coin or talk of the Fourteenth Amendment, which says the full faith and credit of the United States shall not be questioned, and no tricks with IOUs or script or anything like that. You guys spent this money and the bills are now due, and the funds aren’t there. Authorize a bit more borrowing to pay for what you’ve spent or force the nation into default and cause worldwide economic collapse. It’s your choice.
No one expected this of Obama. What happened to bipartisanship? He took away their leverage, and even the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal took notice:
We’ll support efforts to cut spending and reform entitlements, but the political result will be far worse if Republicans start this fight only to cave in the end. You can’t take a hostage you aren’t prepared to shoot. Do the two GOP leaders have a better strategy today than they did in 2011, and do they have the backbench support to execute it?
No, and they add this:
Mr. Boehner needs a plausible counter-strategy. Recognize that he can’t govern from the House, but use the leverage of the spending sequester and power of the purse to see what few policy victories can be had. Find some programs and special interests to showcase and defund, in the manner of the Bridge to Nowhere. Take on corporate welfare. And unleash other Members in the House and Senate… to make the GOP’s growth and reform case to the public. Mr. Boehner can’t be the main party spokesman.
Push smaller reforms that are good policy but might also have a chance of picking up Democratic support.
Even Newt Gingrich piled on:
They’ve got to find, in the House, a totally new strategy. For example, everybody talks about “Okay, here comes the debt ceiling.” I think that’s, frankly, a dead loser because in the end, you know what’s going to happen. The whole national financial system is going to come into Washington by television and say “Oh my God, this would be a gigantic heart attack, the entire economy of the world will collapse – you guys can’t be responsible.” And they’ll cave.
Maybe this isn’t like that old French movie. The thugs aren’t prepared to shoot. They’re just not that good at it:
Backing down from their hardline stance, House Republicans said Friday that they would agree to lift the federal government’s statutory borrowing limit for three months, with a requirement that both chambers of Congress pass a budget in that time to clear the way for negotiations on long-term deficit reduction.
The new proposal, which came out of closed-door party negotiations at a retreat in Williamsburg, Va., seemed to significantly reduce the threat of a default by the federal government in coming weeks. The White House press secretary, Jay Carney, said he was encouraged by the offer; Senate Democrats, while bristling at the demand for a budget, were also reassured and viewed it as a de-escalation of the debt fight.
They folded, at least for three months, although they put a brave face on it:
To add muscle to their efforts to bring Senate Democrats to the table, House Republicans will include a provision in the debt ceiling legislation that says lawmakers will not be paid if they do not pass a budget blueprint, though questions have been raised whether that provision is constitutional.
That “no budget, no pay” provision offered Republicans a face-saving way out of a corner they had painted themselves into – and an effort to shift blame for any default onto the Senate if it balks. The House Republicans’ campaign arm quickly moved from taunting Democrats about raising the government’s borrowing limit to demanding that they sacrifice their paychecks if they fail to pass a budget.
Most everyone in Congress is a millionaire, or actually rich, so this was all nonsense, but maybe the rubes out there will be impressed, and this came about in an odd way:
In the days leading to the Williamsburg retreat, Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, the House Budget Committee chairman and former vice-presidential nominee, had been meeting with the leader and three past chairmen of the conservative House Republican Study Committee to discuss a way through the debt ceiling morass. Those conversations led into Thursday morning, when Mr. Boehner and Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the No. 2 House Republican, opened the retreat by going through the timeline for the coming budget fights, according to aides who were there.
They turned the floor over to Representative Dave Camp of Michigan, the House Ways and Means chairman, who delivered a blow-by-blow description of the economic disaster that could be wrought by a government default. Mr. Camp also talked through the notion held by some Republicans that the Treasury Department could manage a debt ceiling breach by channeling the daily in-flow of tax dollars to the most pressing needs, paying government creditors, sending out Social Security checks and financing the military. His message was that it would not work, the aides said.
They scared the guys with the guns. There are lots of things they want – “sweeping budget plans that would fundamentally remake Medicare and Medicaid, sharply reduce domestic spending, increase military spending and order a wholesale rewriting of the federal tax code” – but you can’t always get what you want, even with a gun, or especially with a gun.
Paul Krugman calls this a big deal:
Yes, the GOP could come back on the debt ceiling, but that seems unlikely. It could try to make a big deal of the sequester, but that’s a lot more like the fiscal cliff than it is like the debt ceiling: not good, but not potentially catastrophic, and therefore poor terrain for the “we’re crazier than you are” strategy. And while Republicans could shut down the government, my guess is that Democrats would actually be gleeful at that prospect: the PR would be overwhelmingly favorable for Obama, and again, not much risk of blowing up the world.
Krugman called it a good day for sanity, all around, and Jonathan Chait adds this:
Will it work? You have to ask yourself what the point is. If Republicans can’t threaten to shoot the hostage, what do they gain by holding new debt ceiling votes every few months? It’s either leverage or it isn’t. If it isn’t, then a new vote every few months won’t do anything for the GOP. Indeed, it will annoy Republicans, who will be forced to take more and more “he voted to increase the debt ceiling fourteen times!” votes.
There really is a fundamental problem here:
Obama is very willing to accept spending cuts if they come alongside revenue increases through reducing tax deductions.
Republicans need to figure out how to navigate these options. They could try to cut a deal and get the spending cuts in return for revenue. Or they could continue their general approach of trying to get as many spending cuts as possible without accepting any revenue at all – which wouldn’t make it impossible for them to wrangle some more cuts out of Obama, but certainly lowers the ceiling on what they can get. And, hey, maybe there’s an argument from a right-wing perspective that the cuts to retirement programs Obama will give them aren’t worth higher revenue.
The odd thing is that they refuse to acknowledge the choice. They’re not arguing that low taxes take precedent over lower spending. They just keep falsely insisting over and over that Obama refuses to accept spending cuts. If they think it makes sense to refuse the spending cuts Obama is offering because they can’t accept the revenue increases he insists have to go along with it, why don’t they just say that? Is the position so unpopular they can’t even acknowledge it publicly? Are they just unable to conceive of a policy change that comes about as a result of compromise rather than hostage-taking? It’s genuinely weird.
So was the Truffaut movie. There really was no reason to shoot that meek piano player, but the rather dimwitted thugs thought they ought to, because they could, to prove something or other. These folks might be better off listening to Charles Krauthammer:
The party establishment is coming around to the view that if you try to govern from one house – e.g., forcing spending cuts with cliffhanging brinkmanship – you lose. You not only don’t get the cuts. You get the blame for rattled markets and economic uncertainty. You get humiliated by having to cave in the end. And you get opinion polls ranking you below head lice and colonoscopies in popularity.
There is history here. The Gingrich Revolution ran aground when it tried to govern from Congress, losing badly to President Clinton over government shutdowns. Nor did the modern insurgents do any better in the 2011 debt-ceiling and 2012 fiscal-cliff showdowns with Obama.
Obama’s postelection arrogance and intransigence can put you in a fighting mood. I sympathize. But I’m tending toward the realist view: Don’t force the issue when you don’t have the power.
Obama’s postelection arrogance and intransigence can put you in a fighting mood? Chuck hasn’t seen anything yet, as John Dickerson suggests here:
Inaugural speeches are supposed to be huge and stirring. Presidents haul our heroes onstage, from George Washington to Martin Luther King Jr. George W. Bush brought the Liberty Bell. They use history to make greatness and achievements seem like something you can just take down from the shelf. Americans are not stuck in the rut of the day.
But this might be too much for Obama’s second inaugural address: After the last four years, how do you call the nation and its elected representatives to common action while standing on the steps of a building where collective action goes to die? That bipartisan bag of tricks has been tried and it didn’t work. People don’t believe it. Congress’ approval rating is 14 percent, the lowest in history. In a December Gallup poll, 77 percent of those asked said the way Washington works is doing “serious harm” to the country.
The challenge for President Obama’s speech is the challenge of his second term: how to be great when the environment stinks.
Well, there may actually be a way to do that:
Enhancing the president’s legacy requires something more than simply the clever application of predictable stratagems. Washington’s partisan rancor, the size of the problems facing government, and the limited amount of time before Obama is a lame duck all point to a single conclusion: The president who came into office speaking in lofty terms about bipartisanship and cooperation can only cement his legacy if he destroys the GOP. If he wants to transform American politics, he must go for the throat.
Yes, destroy these folks, even if that’s out of character:
The Barack Obama of the first administration might have approached the task by finding some Republicans to deal with and then start agreeing to some of their demands in hope that he would win some of their votes. It’s the traditional approach. Perhaps he could add a good deal more schmoozing with lawmakers, too.
That’s the old way. He has abandoned that. He doesn’t think it will work and he doesn’t have the time. As Obama explained in his last press conference, he thinks the Republicans are dead set on opposing him. They cannot be unchained by schmoozing. Even if Obama were wrong about Republican intransigence, other constraints will limit the chance for cooperation. Republican lawmakers worried about primary challenges in 2014 are not going to be willing partners. He probably has at most 18 months before people start dropping the lame-duck label in close proximity to his name.
There’s no choice now:
Obama’s only remaining option is to pulverize. Whether he succeeds in passing legislation or not, given his ambitions, his goal should be to delegitimize his opponents. Through a series of clarifying fights over controversial issues, he can force Republicans to either side with their coalition’s most extreme elements or cause a rift in the party that will leave it, at least temporarily, in disarray.
That shouldn’t be all that hard:
Obama needs two things from the GOP: overreaction and charismatic dissenters. They’re not going to give this to him willingly, of course, but mounting pressures in the party and the personal ambitions of individual players may offer it to him anyway. Indeed, Republicans are serving him some of this recipe already on gun control, immigration, and the broader issue of fiscal policy.
Dickerson has examples:
On gun control, the National Rifle Association has overreached. Its Web video mentioning the president’s children crossed a line. The group’s dissembling about the point of the video and its message compounds the error. (The video was also wrong). The NRA is whipping up its members, closing ranks, and lashing out. This solidifies its base, but is not a strategy for wooing those who are not already engaged in the gun rights debate. It only appeals to those who already think the worst of the president. Republicans who want to oppose the president on policy grounds now have to make a decision: Do they want to be associated with a group that opposes, in such impolitic ways, measures like universal background checks that 70 to 80 percent of the public supports? Polling also suggests that women are more open to gun control measures than men. The NRA, by close association, risks further defining the Republican Party as the party of angry, white Southern men.
The president is also getting help from Republicans who are calling out the most extreme members of the coalition. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie called the NRA video “reprehensible.” Others who have national ambitions are going to have to follow suit. The president can rail about and call the GOP bad names, but that doesn’t mean people are going to listen. He needs members inside the Republican tent to ratify his positions – or at least to stop marching in lockstep with the most controversial members of the GOP club. When Republicans with national ambitions make public splits with their party, this helps the president.
It’s a plan, and actually an ongoing plan:
If the Republican Party finds itself destabilized right now, it is in part because the president has already implemented a version of this strategy. In the 2012 campaign, the president successfully transformed the most intense conservative positions into liabilities on immigration and the role of government. Mitt Romney won the GOP nomination on a platform of “self-deportation” for illegal immigrants – and the Obama team never let Hispanics forget it. The Obama campaign also branded Republicans with Romney’s ill-chosen words about 47 percent of Americans as the party of uncaring millionaires.
He gave these guys something to fix that they can’t fix, given their base. That Obama fellow is a sneaky bastard, and there are few alternatives:
Out of fear for the long-term prospects of the GOP, some Republicans may be willing to partner with the president. That would actually mean progress on important issues facing the country, which would enhance Obama’s legacy. If not, the president will stir up a fracas between those in the Republican Party who believe it must show evolution on issues like immigration, gun control, or climate change and those who accuse those people of betraying party principles.
That fight will be loud and in the open – and in the short term unproductive. The president can stir up these fights by poking the fear among Republicans that the party is becoming defined by its most extreme elements, which will in turn provoke fear among the most faithful conservatives that weak-willed conservatives are bending to the popular mood. That will lead to more tin-eared, dooming declarations of absolutism like those made by conservatives who sought to define the difference between legitimate and illegitimate rape – and handed control of the Senate to Democrats along the way. For the public watching from the sidelines, these intramural fights will look confused and disconnected from their daily lives.
This is, in effect, a war on the Republican Party. Or, looking at it another way, it’s the revenge of Truffaut’s meek piano player. So there are thugs with guns ready to shoot? Understand that they’re all dimwitted buffoons who don’t know quite what they want to do, or even why. Work with that. Give them space to swagger around and make fools of themselves, and stand back while they argue with each other and then start shooting each other, not you. But that’s another movie – The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight of course. It’s a comedy.