No Point in Apologizing When You’ve Won

On the first Monday in December things came to a head. The Jets and the Patriots were tied for first in their division and they faced each other in the big game – the two awesome teams would go head to head and it would be amazing to watch. But it wasn’t. It was pathetic. The Jets managed a field goal – that was it – and the Patriots just scored touchdown after touchdown. It was a blow-out, and wasn’t worth watching. And the clever and likable and ironic coach of the Jets had some explaining to do, so that’s what he did:

“It was the game of the year,” a bloodshot-eyed coach Rex Ryan said Tuesday. “The unfortunate thing is I feel bad for ourselves, obviously, our fans and, really, the NFL. The NFL deserved a better game than that, but we weren’t up to the task.”

Actually, that wasn’t an explanation. It was a mea culpa. Rex Ryan simply said he knew everyone was disappointed – let down, dissatisfied, disillusioned, saddened, frustrated, dismayed or whatever – with what his team had done. And he led the team. He made the decisions. He knows people deserved better. He screwed up, and he knows it. He gets it. He’s so sorry.

And on the first Monday in December other things came to a head. The president announced that compromise on extending the Bush-era tax cuts – in exchange for extending jobless benefits just a little bit, and allowing the ninety-eight percent of Americans who earn less than a quarter million a year to keep their Bush-Era tax cuts, he agreed to extend the massive tax cuts for the top two percent – the millionaires and billionaires – just like the Republicans had insisted he do. They promised to pretty much shut down all legislative action on everything, forever, unless he did that for the millionaires and billionaires. He felt he had to. They had the votes to carry out their threat, and he decided it was more important to keep people from starving in the streets and all that. He got his field goal, and the Republicans got their four touchdowns and all that. Yeah, he had promised throughout his campaign that he’d not extend those tax cut for the millionaires and billionaires, but, well, he wasn’t up to the task. Or the reality of the situation was that he couldn’t make good on his promise. He knows people deserved better. He screwed up, and he knows it. He gets it. He’s so sorry.

But he didn’t say that. He’s not Rex Ryan and this isn’t a game. Yes, the liberals and the left and the progressives and all were disappointed and let down, dissatisfied, disillusioned, saddened, frustrated, dismayed and all the rest. But he didn’t do a Rex Ryan. Yes, like Ryan he held a next-day press conference, but Obama’s press conference was something else entirely:

Seeking to stem a full-scale rebellion within his party, a frustrated President Obama said yesterday that he had no choice other than to negotiate a tax deal with Republicans, and he lashed out at “purists” in his own party who have castigated him for capitulating to GOP demands.

The day of verbal volleys turned the usual political balance of Washington on its head. Republicans who just weeks earlier had mocked Obama as a socialist lauded his effort at bipartisanship, while Democratic leaders expressed deep reservations about the president’s move and withheld their support.

By midafternoon, Obama called a press conference at which he compared the attacks on his tax deal to complaints by liberal Democrats earlier this year that he had dropped a public option from his health insurance plan.

He warned Democrats against “having a purist position and no victories for the American people.” To “feel good about ourselves and sanctimonious about how pure our intentions are” means nothing if legislation goes nowhere, he said.

He basically tells his base to get off his back:

Obama, who has been accused by some of lacking passion, let fly with plenty of it as he sought to explain why he agreed to a deal that extended tax cuts for all Americans, even though he had long campaigned against giving the cuts to the wealthiest. He said that he had to deal with a Senate in which Republicans can block his proposed plan with a filibuster, and that he decided to agree to a deal because it extended unemployment benefits and other measures that he said help the middle class.

“I want to make sure the American people aren’t hurt because we’re having a political fight,” Obama said.

Basically he defended pragmatism – get done what you can get done – over liberal idealism – fighting the good fight you cannot possibly win:

“It’s tempting not to negotiate with hostage takers – unless the hostage gets harmed,” he said. “Then, people will question the wisdom of that strategy. In this case, the hostage was the American people, and I was not willing to see them get harmed.”

Obama compared the stance of some within his party to what happened during the health care negotiations, when some liberals were angry that the plan did not include a public option for insurance.

“So I pass a signature piece of legislation where we finally get health care for all Americans, something that Democrats had been fighting for, for a hundred years,” he said. “But because there was a provision in there that they didn’t get that would have affected maybe a couple of million people, even though we got health insurance for 30 million people and the potential for lower premiums for 100 million people, that somehow was a sign of weakness and compromise.”

Obama said if that is the type of standard Democrats expect, “then let’s face it, we will never get anything done.”

Obama is no Rex Ryan, and he won what he could. And maybe he won something else:

Democratic strategist Tad Devine said the tax cut deal could help reposition the president to win over independent swing voters who voted against the party in the midterm elections. Obama could help himself politically with that group if he looks like someone “who can do business with Republicans on economic issues,” Devine said.

“When a president is attacked by the base of his own party, he’s helping himself win the next election,” Devine said. “The electorate that showed up in 2010 is disastrous for the Democrats. The president has to do something about that and it’s not by creating more liberals.”

Well, that’s a thought. And Clive Crook sees one part of the message as this:

He said, in effect, that Republicans are incapable of compromise or seeing reason. This time, and this time only, he had been forced to surrender to their threats to harm the American people, because he had no choice. Republicans had taken the American people hostage, he said, and sometimes, much as you may detest it, you have to do business with hostage-takers. Agreeing to this deal was a necessary evil, and not a habit he intended to get into. The public does not want this deal, he emphasized; he had already won that argument, and the Republicans had lost. But what can you do with these people? Rest assured it won’t happen again. Bring on the new Congress and the next debates. You’ll see how tough, uncompromising, and unyieldingly partisan I can be.

But Obama also said this:

People will have the satisfaction of having a purist position – and no victories for the American people… This is a big diverse country. Not everybody agrees with us. I know that shocks people. Now the New York Times editorial page does not permeate across all of America… neither does the Wall Street Journal editorial page…, And that means… in order to get stuff done, you have to compromise. This is why FDR, when he started Social Security, it only affected widows and orphans… This country was founded on compromise… If we were really thinking about ideal positions, we wouldn’t have a union.

Crook:

Good Lord. One minute, he’s reassuring progressives. We are good and they are evil. It’s victims and hostage-takers, no less. Just be patient, our time will come, and accounts with the enemy will be settled. Next minute, he’s rebuking the same progressives. Spare me your sanctimonious purism. It’s un-American. We have good-faith differences of opinion. “This country was founded on compromise.”

Well, I suppose you could say these are mere differences of emphasis, but that is not how they strike me.

Crook is befuddled by this. Obama is all over the place.

But David Kurtz just doesn’t see it that way:

Obama’s press conference this afternoon will be seen as a turning point if not in his Presidency then in how we understand and perceive him and his approach to politics. …

What we saw and what I think we’ll see borne out by subsequent events is Obama revealing in a very public way the choice he has made between the two political personas he has simultaneously inhabited throughout his candidacy and his presidency. He has tried to be both pragmatist and progressive savior. And even when he stopped trying to be the savior after he was elected, he was at a certain level content to let supporters continue to project that persona on to him.

Today, he very clearly and loudly said: that savior persona is not me. I am the pragmatist. And you know what? I don’t have a whole lot of patience for the idealists. I share their ideals, but I don’t share their approach and I’m not going to get bogged down in recriminations over not living up to some abstract ideal.

Kurtz argues that with this press conference the pretense that he might yet be someone else was finally dropped.

Of course this may not matter:

Two key obstacles emerged Tuesday night to the passage of President Obama’s tax cut compromise with the GOP. Except this time they come from the right: The influential anti-tax group Club for Growth and conservative kingmaker Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) both came out in opposition to the agreement, threatening the breadth of Republican support for the plan.

The other side has its purists too. This whole thing may fall apart anyway. And taxes may revert to their previous levels, because no one can agree.

But that might be a good thing. When the original Bush tax cuts were passed – by reconciliation, because they didn’t have the votes to pass them any other way – they had to expire in ten years. You can pass something via reconciliation – a simple majority vote – when the measure has no effect on the budget or debt, and is, as they say, revenue neutral. Tax cuts for the wealthy that cost the government seven hundred billion dollars or more in lost revenue are hardly revenue neutral. That’s absurd. So they had to make the tax cuts into law by saying they were only temporary – not real – they’d expire in ten years. Hey, these guys said they were a fiction. Maybe it’s time to get real – even if it means going back to the economic disaster that was the Clinton years, not the boom times that were the don’t-tax-the-wealthy Bush years. Yes, that’s a joke, a bitter one. But if the conservatives care about the awful deficit that will be the end of America and turn us into Greece, maybe they should be all for letting the Bush-era tax cuts expire, just as they said they should. It’s just a thought. But they don’t think that way.

And as for Obama’s nasty compromise, well, there are lots of ways to think about that. Rex Ryan apologized because his team stunk up the place – the Jets lost, badly, or worse than badly. But did Obama’s team lose? See Ezra Klein on that:

If you look at the numbers alone, the tax cut deal looks to have robbed Republicans blind. The GOP got around $95 billion in tax cuts for wealthy Americans and $30 billion in estate tax cuts. Democrats got $120 billion in payroll-tax cuts, $40 billion in refundable tax credits (Earned Income Tax Credit, Child Tax Credit and education tax credits), $56 billion in unemployment insurance, and, depending on how you count it, about $180 billion (two-year cost) or $30 billion (10-year cost) in new tax incentives for businesses to invest.

But that’s not how it’s being understood. Republicans are treating it as a victory, and liberals as a defeat. Which raises two separate questions: Why did Republicans give Obama so much? And why aren’t Democrats happier about it?

Good questions – and why should Obama do a Rex Ryan and apologize? The Jets lost. Obama didn’t:

Conservatives saw the extension of the tax cuts as an important pivot point in American politics – full stop. As my colleague Jennifer Rubin puts it, Republicans “won the philosophical point (tax hikes impede economic growth) and, candidly, are more than delighted to have a repeat of this debate for the presidential campaign in 2012.” The Obama administration didn’t see the tax cuts as a philosophical point, and is similarly convinced that a repeat of this debate in 2012 – when the economy is better and the deficit is worse – will favor their side. So rightly or wrongly, they judged the two-year extension as much less of a loss than the Republicans judged it a win – and that gave the Democrats leverage on the rest of the package.

Meanwhile, the partisan electricity of the past year had obscured a simple fact: Much of what the Obama administration wanted was not that noxious to conservatives. They were tax cuts, many of them for businesses. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels had previously proposed both a payroll tax cut for 2011 and the tax breaks for business investment. Republicans have frequently said that they don’t even oppose unemployment insurance.

So who won and who lost? It’s a mystery. And Klein adds this:

If you’re worried about stimulus, joblessness and the working poor, this is probably a better deal than you thought you were going to get. “It’s a bigger deal than anyone expected,” says Bob Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “Both sides gave more than expected and both sides got more than expected.” The White House walked out of the negotiations with more stimulus than anyone had seen coming. But they did it in a way that made their staunchest allies feel left behind, and in many cases, utterly betrayed.

That the Obama administration has turned out to be fairly good at the inside Washington game of negotiations and legislative compromise and quite bad at communicating to the public and keeping their base excited is not what most would have predicted during the 2008 campaign. But it’s true.

And Andrew Sullivan is thinking along the same lines:

It’s been fascinating to watch the left’s emotional roller-coaster these past few weeks. It’s also been fascinating to watch Obama out-run them, and to observe their responses to the final deal in the last 24 hours. Krugman has gone from “Let’s Not Make A Deal” to “better than what I expected.” The response from the far-right has also been illuminating. Drudge rushed to declare Obama’s payroll tax cut as a Republican idea. Hinderaker… insists “Obama has admitted that the Republicans were right all along.” Notice something about all of this? They all now realize that Obama has been a little shrewder than they took him to be.

As Hillary Clinton learned in 2008, you don’t underestimate this guy:

And notice that Obama has secured – with Republican backing – a big new stimulus that will almost certainly goose growth and lower unemployment as he moves toward re-election. If growth accelerates, none of the current political jockeying and Halperin-style hyper-ventilation will matter. Obama will benefit – thanks, in part, to Republican dogma. So here’s something the liberal base can chew on if they need some grist: how cool is it that Mitch McConnell just made Barack Obama’s re-election more likely? Bet you didn’t see that one coming did you?

And Sullivan sees a master politician at work:

At some point, I suspect, the Congress will have to decide between extending the payroll tax holiday or keeping the Bush tax cuts for millionaires – the double-track of the current Keynesian deal. I think Obama wins on that one, and has set up the kind of future choice the GOP really doesn’t want to make. What he has done, in other words, is avoid an all-out fight over short-term taxes and spending now in the wake of a big GOP victory, in order to set up the real debate about long-term taxes and spending over the next two years, leading into a pivotal 2012 election that could set the fiscal and political direction of this country for decades, an election in which he may well have much more of an advantage than he does now.

Sullivan calls this the difference between tactics and strategy:

The GOP has won again on tactics, but keeps losing on strategy. More broadly, as this sinks in, Obama’s ownership of this deal will help restore the sense that he is in command of events, and has shifted to the center (even though he is steadily advancing center-left goals). It’s already being touted as “triangulation” by some on the right even as it contains major liberal favorites – unemployment insurance for another 13 months, EITC expansion, college tax credits, and a pay-roll tax cut.

My view is that if this deal is a harbinger for the negotiation Obama will continue with the GOP for the next two years, he will come into his own.

And that will look like this:

The more his liberal base attacks him, the more the center will take a second look. And look how instantly the GOP’s position has shifted. They have suddenly gone from pure oppositionism to dealing with the dreaded commie Muslim alien, thereby proving he is not what they have made him out to be. The more often we get the GOP to make actual tangible decisions on policy alongside Obama, the less able they will be able to portray him as somehow alien to the country, and the more they will legitimize him. Their House victory means they can no longer sit out there, portraying the country as somehow taken over by radical, alien forces – which they can simply oppose with ever-ascending levels of hysteria and rhetoric. And the more practical and detailed and concrete the compromises, the less oxygen blowhards like Palin and Limbaugh will have to breathe.

So consider the conservatives here. There is a saying in sports for such people. Hey, don’t these guys know how to play this game?

So yes, Rex Ryan was right to apologize for that joke of a football game. His guys lost. But this is different. There’s no point in apologizing when you’ve won. But liberal Democrats and progressives and those of the left are an odd lot. Maybe they’re just not used to winning, so they can’t see it when it happens. And conservatives are so used to winning, or saying they’ve won, that they don’t realize when they’ve lost. It’s a funny world. And of course politics isn’t like football.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Compromise, Obama the Pragmatist, Tax Policy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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