Budget Arm Wrestling with the GOP

Everyone is shocked that Barak Obama is playing hardball in his negotiations with the GOP over the so-called fiscal cliff (or more accurately, fiscal incline). That’s because we are used to seeing Obama make concessions which the Republicans then reject (see 2011, summer). Now, as E. J. Dionne of The Washington Post puts it, we are witnessing what “sane bargaining” looks like and it feels strange to us.

I’m thinking that Obama has decided to be Beowulf rather than Queen Wealtheow.

I’ve made the Wealtheow comparison before, especially with regard to that awful summer when Obama was terrified that rightwing House Republicans would destroy the country’s credit rating by not allowing the U. S. to pay its debts. He was prepared to make significant cuts to entitlement programs in exchange for modest tax hikes and an agreement to (in past Congresses a routine matter) raise the debt ceiling. But by refusing even his offer of $4 in spending cuts for $1 in increased revenue, the GOP pushed the country to the brink. It drew back only at the promise of a “super committee” which would either work out a compromise or there would be cuts to defense and entitlement programs that everyone would hate. It failed so now these cuts, along with the sudden rise of everyone’s taxes (the result of the Bush tax cuts ending) could trigger another recession.

In negotiating with the GOP this time, Obama has the wind of the election at his back, which gives him a stronger position than he had before. He has therefore made a much bolder offer—taxes raised on those making over $250,000, more stimulus funds for infrastructure spending, a new way to raise the debt ceiling (the president can raise it and it is up to a two thirds vote in Congress to refuse to do so), cuts to Medicare providers (not to recipients), and some tax reform.  There is no 4-1 deal this time.

His liberal supporters are cheering, the GOP is outraged, and centrists like Ruth Marcus are accusing him of “chest thumping” and of seeking to vanquish his opponent. Why can’t he be more magnanimous in victory?

My question for Marcus is where was she when Obama was getting rolled for being conciliatory? Given that the GOP has failed to make any concrete proposals to cut entitlements (as Dionne rightly points out, ideas tossed in the air by Paul Ryan aren’t proposals) and has failed to put forward any serious suggestions on raising new revenue, why should he do all the proposing? Why should he negotiate with himself?

This time it is not Obama who is playing Queen Wealtheow but centrists like Marcus. Just to remind you of the story, Wealtheow is worried about the ambitions of Hrothgar’s nephew Hrothulf should Hrothgar die. Will he, in his position of regent to Hrothgar and Wealtheow’s son, seize the throne for himself? But instead of accepting Hrothgar’s idea that Beowulf be named the heir, thereby supplanting Hrothulf, she thinks that the nephew can be placated by being reminded of the gifts he has received from Hrothgar. He’ll act properly, she convinces her husband, because of the obligations he owes the king.

Of course, when Hrothgar dies, Regent Hrothulf kills the son and seizes the throne, and the great hall of Heorot burns to the ground. In 2011, both Obama’s and the GOP’s reputations likewise went up in smoke. So much for playing nice.

Beowulf’s approach to Grendel, by contrast, is to go hard against his opponent, maintaining a strong grip even as he extends his hand. My sense is that this is the only kind of approach that the GOP, in its current manifestation, will respect. Compromise can come only after there’s been some arm wrestling. That’s how politics seem to work, at least these days.

Beowulf, not Wealtheow. Maybe it should be a bumper sticker.

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