Commentary Magazine

Poseur Politics in the Era of Obama

Neither the senate nor the House of Representatives had voted on the proposed agreement to avoid the “fiscal cliff” of tax hikes and spending cuts when President Obama assembled a friendly crowd of “middle-class taxpayers” at the White House on New Year’s Eve to announce his triumph. Obama was jolly. Though he lamented that he would have preferred “a larger agreement, a bigger deal, a grand bargain—whatever you want to call it” to the hodgepodge hastily assembled by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Vice President Joe Biden, Obama also wanted the nation to be absolutely sure of who had won the fight over taxes. He had.

“Keep in mind that just last month Republicans in Congress said they would never agree to raise tax rates on the wealthiest Americans,” Obama said, according to the White House transcript of the event. “Obviously, the agreement that’s currently being discussed would raise those rates and raise them permanently. [Applause.]” Nor would this be the last time that the Republicans would have to betray their long-standing opposition to tax increases: “If we’re going to be serious about deficit reduction and debt reduction, then it’s going to have to be a matter of shared sacrifice—at least as long as I’m president. And I’m going to be president for the next four years, I think, so?—.[Applause.]”

This chest-thumping was almost enough to scuttle the rickety agreement. Republicans were furious that the president would trumpet their loss even before the tax-hike legislation had come to a vote. In the end, though, the tax deal passed the Senate by 89 to 8 and the House by 257 to 167. (A majority of House Republicans, aware that the bill would pass without their assent, voted no.) Obama rejoined his family on vacation in Hawaii, where he directed that the deal be signed with an autopen. Thus the 112th Congress that had opened in 2011 with Tea Party–inspired hopes of restoring limited government and fiscal sanity to Washington closed with the passage of legislation that raised taxes and cut no spending. 

The Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 was rather ironically named. In the first place, the payroll tax (which pays for Social Security and Medicare) rose automatically—increasing the tax burden on 160 million Americans as of January 1, 2013. Households making $250,000 a year or more will see higher effective tax rates due to limited deductions and exemptions. The capital gains and dividend and estate taxes will rise. Income taxes will revert to Clinton-era rates beginning for individuals with annual incomes of $400,000 or more and for households with annual incomes of $450,000 or more.

The legislation contained no measures to improve economic growth. The legislation contained no entitlement reform or framework for tax reform or cuts to non-entitlement spending. The legislation did contain some $40 billion in spending through the tax code that is directed to a collection of well connected industries. Long-term unemployment insurance was extended. Farm subsidies were extended. Cuts to Medicare providers were delayed. The “sequester,” an across-the-board cut of 10 percent in government discretionary spending originally designed to force a serious negotiation over Washington outlays, was also delayed. This was policy evasion of the highest order.

Far more striking than what the deal actually did, however, was what the debate surrounding it revealed about the character of our politics. Members of both parties in both elected branches of government proved to be far more concerned with projecting attitudes of disgust and defiance than they were with actually addressing America’s related challenges of low economic growth and high public debt. Whether the official was a liberal Democrat from Massachusetts or a conservative Republican from Georgia, his imperative was to convey, in the most visceral terms, a posture of absolute commitment to his most vocal supporters.

Only after the final Senate and House votes were tallied was it possible to perceive the beginnings of a Republican and conservative reconciliation with the reality of the current political situation. That reality is grim. Of the three elected bodies of the federal government, the conservative party controls only the lower chamber of the Congress, and by a slim 33-vote margin out of 435. Conservatives are learning, to their distress, that they are outnumbered. House Republicans have little or no power to advance their own issues forward despite their control of the chamber. They can block liberal initiatives, which is of value in itself, but in so doing they have become little more than the Party of No.

To exert any positive influence on public policy over the next two (or four or six or eight) years, conservatives will need a direct appraisal of the numbers, a straightforward understanding of priorities, and an honest appreciation of what is possible. The alternative is to strike poses of purity and righteousness. We already have a president who indulges in such immaturity: Obama has excelled at the politics of posturing, and he displayed his talent throughout the fiscal-cliff negotiations. The president’s every word and deed is meant to fortify the perception that he is the defender of an airily defined “middle class.” It is a good place for a vote-seeking politician to be, but not for a president who aspires to address substantively the long-term challenges of his nation and thereby make it stronger.

That Obama lacks such an aspiration is evident. He has presided over high unemployment and low economic growth and a fantastic accumulation of public debt. The cost-saving changes to Social Security and Medicare with which he sometimes flirts seem never to materialize. His major contribution to the entitlement debate has been to make the problem worse through the creation of a universal health-care program. His tax “reform” consists of increasing rates on a shrinking base. The only line item in the federal budget that he cuts willingly is defense.

Increasing the effective tax rates of the wealthy will neither jump-start economic growth nor generate enough revenue to cover the absurdly large commitments the government has made to provide for the health care and retirement of seniors. Obama, however, has given no sign that he is interested in either issue. What he is interested in is continuing to have “millionaires and billionaires” “pay their fair share”—fair is conveniently left open to interpretation—in a quixotic campaign against the widening income inequality driven by globalization and increasing returns to high-skilled labor.

Obama is also interested in painting his opponents as tools of the rich. Republicans have “got another thing coming,” he said at his New Year’s Eve pre-victory rally, if they assume “we’re just going to try to shove only spending cuts down—well—[laughter]—shove spending cuts at us that will hurt seniors, or hurt students, or hurt middle-class families.” No one will be “hurt,” in other words, except the generation of Americans that will have to deal with the consequences of an anemic economy, a diminished military, and a highly probable sovereign bankruptcy. But by that time Obama most likely will have ascended to the status of a living legend. He and his fellow liberal Democrats who refuse to acknowledge that there is no way to pay for America’s health-care spending without soaking the middle class as well as the rich are exemplary poseurs. 

But they are not the only ones. Throughout November and December there was among certain conservatives an appetite for noble but purposeless stands, a hankering to allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. Take, for example, the opposition of Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas to Speaker John Boehner’s mid-December proposal to limit automatic tax increases to millionaires: “I firmly believe that the decisions about politics should be made by Americans that are not in Washington, D.C.,” the National Journal quoted Huelskamp as saying. “But I tell you if I went home and told them after taking a pledge not to raise taxes and voted for [Boehner’s proposal], I would certainly deserve primary opposition.”

His frustration and outrage are understandable. Obama’s reelection was shock enough. Government continues to grow, and Huelskamp’s own leadership was asking him to collude in a tax increase. Yet it did not seem to occur to Huelskamp that he was elected to Congress precisely to represent “Americans that are not in Washington, D.C.” by acting in the public interest. It did not seem to occur to him that there are higher public and private goods than avoiding “primary opposition.”

The behavior of Huelskamp and his allies was not irrational. There is a passionate and generous audience of conservatives for whom no stance against government can be too bold and for whom no compromise with liberalism is worth the cost. There is, however, a great danger in mistaking inflexibility for strength and in placing categorical opposition to the “establishment” above all other considerations. The danger: falling into a self-delusion similar to that of Obama and his profligate Democrats.

The pose of conservative purity will not bring the nation closer to reviving the economy or cutting entitlements. Indeed, it can be self-defeating, because in some cases the alternative to compromise is worse than the compromise itself. What congressmen such as Huelskamp seemed not to recognize over the course of the cliff debate was that the tax increase was going to happen regardless of their actions. The choice was not between one tax hike and no tax hike. The choice was between one tax hike on some and another tax hike on everyone.

One might oppose tax increases so staunchly as to not vote for them under any circumstances, but the fiscal cliff was a paradoxical situation. Not voting for a tax increase would result in the largest possible tax increase. How could a tax cutter be happy with that?

One might have said that “going over the cliff” and allowing the automatic tax hikes and spending cuts to occur would have been the only way for America to reduce her deficits in the near term. But doing so would have left the Democrats in 2013 as the party of tax cuts and the Republicans responsible for the economic, social, and political consequences of higher rates. Was that really how House conservatives wanted to cap off a 20-year record of keeping taxes low?

Such is the mess Americans have made of their tax code and budget. Facing the fiscal cliff, the outgoing Congress had not a single wholly good option. That none of Boehner’s Republican opponents could articulate a realistic alternative that would have left rates untouched was evidence that their top priority was assuming a pose that would bring the maximum rewards from within the conservative movement. Democrats, meanwhile, were split between the liberals who were satisfied with the deal’s tax hikes and the liberals who said the deal did not hike taxes enough. This was the chaos and confusion, in the rush to avoid the consequences of the cliff, that gave us alliances between conservative Sen. Marco Rubio and leftist Sen. Tom Harkin, who voted against the deal, and, in the House, between former GOP vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan and retiring Massachusetts liberal Barney Frank, who voted for it.

To be sure, some advocates of the deal struck their own poses. Few supported it on its own terms. There was instead the widespread desire among the Republican aye votes to “avoid blame” for the looming tax hikes. Getting the blame for the tax hikes, it was said, would damage attempts to “re-brand” the GOP as a “middle-class party.” Refusal to compromise, it was also said, would harden the Republican image as “radical” and “out of touch.” Note here that the primary concern of these advocates for compromise had to do with positioning, not with the proposal’s content. Whether the deal addressed the economy and entitlements was a question left unanswered.

Meanwhile, there were those who seemed only to make a fetish of the virtue of compromise as an end in itself. CNBC ran insipid ads admonishing elected officials to “rise above” their differences. Starbucks employees scrawled the words “come together” on the sides of venti nonfat lattes. Where people would be rising to and what they would be coming together for were not articulated. The content of any potential compromise, its value as law, was immaterial. What mattered was whether Washington “got something”—anything—done. That the desire for Washington to act might have negative consequences as well as positive ones, however, ought to be obvious to any observer of American politics. 

Both sorts of consequences were present in the fiscal-cliff deal. The best that can be said for it is that taxes did not rise as much as they might have. And, as it happened, that is exactly how the conservatives who supported the deal explained their votes. They made no grand claims. They had no illusions. Their statements described their actions in defensive terms. “Kinzinger votes to avert the fiscal cliff—passage prevents largest tax increase in American history,” read the title of the press release issued by Illinois Republican congressman Adam Kinzinger. “Today, I joined my colleagues in the House to protect as many Americans as possible from a tax increase,” said Paul Ryan in his release.

What might have been the most significant outcome of the fiscal-cliff debate, then, was this growing appreciation of the new facts on the ground among conservatives and Republicans. They are facing the world and Washington as they are, not as they would wish them to be. There will be no “grand bargain” worthy of the name out of Washington’s taxation and spending policies: Obama’s comments suggest that the future “tax reform” he will propose would be cover for additional tax increases. On the Republican side, Paul Ryan’s budget, which does provide a path to a sustainable government, has no chance of becoming law any time soon. The correlation of forces in Washington suggests that there will not be any measurable conservative victories in the short term. Republicans such as Kinzinger and Ryan, who do want to shape policy rather than cavil, have to make the best of a bad hand.

How can they do so? More than a quarter century ago, a Democrat wrote of a somewhat similar situation:

This is our circumstance. We are a minority. We are outvoted. This is neither an unprecedented nor an intolerable situation. The question is what do we make of it. So far we have made little—nothing—of what is in fact an opportunity. We go about dazed that the world has changed. We toy with the idea of stopping it and getting off. We rebound with the thought that if only we are more reasonable perhaps “they” will be.?.?.?.?But “they” do not grow reasonable. Instead, we grow unreasonable.

What Daniel Patrick Moynihan said in these pages of “The United States in Opposition” at the United Nations might be analogized to conservatives in opposition in Washington. Moynihan urged U.S. diplomats “to reach for a certain coherence of opposition” in order to further policies that were “limited in their undertakings, concrete in their means, representative in their mode of adoption, and definable in terms of results.” He urged championing economic growth and “speaking for political and civil liberty, and doing so in detail and in concrete particulars.” Moynihan wrote: “We are of the liberty party, and it might surprise us what energies might be released were we to unfurl those banners.” 

Bruised and bloodied by the 2012 election, shaken by the resolution of the fiscal-cliff debate, conservatives enter 2013 with a tempered and chastened understanding of what an opposition party truly can accomplish. Ideological and attitudinal poses are not enough. Conservatives might look instead to Moynihan’s example and choose the incremental over the grandiose, the realistic over the visionary. They might try to encourage economic growth as they preserve what they can of America’s civil and religious freedoms. Who knows? They might be surprised by the energies released when the banners of the liberty party are unfurled. Barack Obama might be surprised, too.

About the Author

Matthew Continetti is editor-in-chief of the Washington Free Beacon.

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