White House staffers who have been grumbling about President Obama’s outreach efforts with Republicans in the past two weeks probably cheered up a bit when they saw their boss’s interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos yesterday. While the president was still talking about the virtues of schmoozing with the GOP, the more he talked about the substance of the budget negotiations the less likely it seemed that there would ever be much to talk about.
Liberals were denouncing the budget proposal put forward by Rep. Paul Ryan yesterday as a sign that Republicans were unwilling to bow to the president’s dictates and abandon their principles. But in his interview, the president was characterizing the issues that would have to be resolved in a way that makes it appear he isn’t backing down either. More than that, his lack of urgency about dealing with the debt crisis and his unwillingness to contemplate any meaningful reform of entitlements as well as the way he spoke of GOP efforts in that direction gave the lie to the current media narrative about his desire for compromise. If the president can’t even conduct a charm offensive without demonizing the other side in this dispute, then the whispers from the White House staff that the entire exercise is a cynical sham appear to be entirely correct.
The most dramatic part of President Obama’s State of the Union speech was his impassioned appeal for more gun control. Shamelessly invoking gun victims, including the children of Newtown, Connecticut, the president demanded that each of his proposals for new restrictions should be given an up or down vote in Congress even though none would do much to end gun violence. That earned him a standing ovation from Democrats even if many moderate members of his party from red states have no intention of ever putting themselves in a position where they might have to vote on such measures.
But while the “deserve a vote” rhetoric about gun control got the most applause the centerpiece of his address was a laundry list of government programs that he wants implemented that amounts to a second stimulus in all but name. For the most part this was just another straight-forward demand for a liberal vision in which government could and must afford to do just about everything from pre-K education to green jobs to easing the way for more home ownership. But by claiming that this staggering wish list wouldn’t “add a single dime to the deficit” he may have created a one-man credibility gap that even his impressive speaking ability and personal charm can’t close. You have to believe in the Tooth Fairy to buy the idea that this much new bureaucracy and involvement in the private sector won’t wind up costing a lot more money that we don’t have.
Former President Bill Clinton showed us last night that he is still a master of the art of political rhetoric. Democrats loved his convention speech on behalf of President Obama and so did most of the media which had begun swooning over his magic touch hours before he even began talking. The genius of Clinton’s political style is that, unlike most of the Democrats on the Charlotte podium this week, he understands that there is more to political oratory than merely bludgeoning your opponents and damning them as women-hating plutocrats. Thus, Clinton not only sought to charm the audience with his aging but still potent down-home routine, he was also seeking to disarm listeners by throwing out some lines designed to make us think his goal is fairness. That led to perhaps the most awkward moment of the evening when he actually briefly praised President George W. Bush, leaving his partisan audience momentarily stunned.
But what the Democrats and the media really liked was Clinton’s lengthy refutation of Republican arguments as he spouted figures and claimed he was merely doing “arithmetic” in pointing out the GOP’s flaws. Clinton produced the laughs and the scorn he was trying for, earning applause in the arena and in the glowing notices that followed. But the notion that he demolished Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan has more to do with a willingness on the part of his listeners to buy whatever he’s selling than logic. As the Washington Post Fact Checker and the American Enterprise Institute’s James Pethokoukis report this morning, there were a number of points on which there is a wide gap between what Clinton said and the truth.
Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad is often described as a fiscal hawk, but as he prepares to retire after 26 years in the Senate, his legacy may be as the chairman who failed to pass a budget for three years as national debt shot up by $4 trillion.
It’s not that Conrad didn’t try this week. Despite opposition from Democratic leadership, he scheduled a markup on a budget proposal for this afternoon – his last one before retirement – but yesterday suddenly backed down from the plan. There would still be a “markup,” he said – but it would be a markup in name only. No voting, no room to propose amendment, no chance of bringing anything to the Senate floor.