Thursday, October 03, 2013

The shutdown, the Williamsburg Accord and the President's strategy

So, the Reds have shut down the national government. (Sorry, I couldn't resist. I still think it's hilarious that conventional usage now calls the Republicans the "red" party.)

I haven't posted about the shutdown since it began early Wednesday morning. It's anyone's guess at this point how long it may go on. The analysis that sees this event as this Republican House's version of the Clinton impeachment, a kind of Constitutional coup, makes a lot of sense to me.

It seems that not only the mainstream press but much of Left Blogostan missed the significance of a Republican convocation back in January. Jonathan Chait writes in The House GOP’s Legislative Strike Daily Intelligencer 09/30/2013:

In January, demoralized House Republicans retreated to Williamsburg, Virginia, to plot out their legislative strategy for President Obama’s second term. Conservatives were angry that their leaders had been unable to stop the expiration of the Bush tax cuts on high incomes, and sought assurances from their leaders that no further compromises would be forthcoming. The agreement that followed, which Republicans called "The Williamsburg Accord," received obsessive coverage in the conservative media but scant attention in the mainstream press. (The phrase "Williamsburg Accord" has appeared once in the Washington Post and not at all in the New York Times.)

But the decision House Republicans made in January has set the party on the course it has followed since. If you want to grasp why Republicans are careening toward a potential federal government shutdown, and possibly toward provoking a sovereign debt crisis after that, you need to understand that this is the inevitable product of a conscious party strategy. Just as Republicans responded to their 2008 defeat by moving farther right, they responded to the 2012 defeat by moving right yet again. Since they had begun from a position of total opposition to the entire Obama agenda, the newer rightward lurch took the form of trying to wrest concessions from Obama by provoking a series of crises. [my emphasis]
I certainly don't want to detract from the blame that the Republican Party deserves in the shutdown. It wasn't "the politicians in Washington" who did this week's needless and destructive government shutdown. It was the Republican Party Members of the House of Representatives who shut it down.

Here's a stock both-sides-are-to-blame version from former General Electric CEO Jack Welch: Schmooze or Lose: How the Lost Art of Negotiation Led to a Shutdown Huffington Post 10/02/2013. At this point, such a position is simply a partisan Republican one. The main Republican position of course, is that it's the President's fault. By any rational standard, that's plainly ridiculous.

However, Democrats and the country more generally should expect a strategy from the twice-elected Democratic President that takes full account of the Republicans' behavior. And Obama has been sadly deficient in that regard.

He said on Wednesday, "I have bent over backwards to work with the Republican Party, and have purposely kept my rhetoric down." Gee, maybe it's time for a different approach! (Sam Stein, Obama To Wall Street: You Should Be Scared Huffington Post 10/02/2013)

Obama came into office at a time of acute economic crisis. And he passed enough of a stimulus to stop the slide and allow the economy to eventually limp out of a recession. But the economy is still performing far below capacity, unemployment is high and poverty has risen.

But from the very first, even while pursuing a stimulus package, Obama framed his goals in terms of giving priority to reducing the federal deficit. Even worse, he set his longer-term economic goals as a Grand Bargain, which originally envisioned: adoption of the Bob Dole/Heritage Foundation/Mitt Romney health care plan now known as Obamacare; raising taxes on the wealthiest; and cutting benefits on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. He adopted a basically conservative understanding of economics in which austerity is good and virtuous even during a depression.

He didn't take it to the catastrophic extremes that German Chancellor Angela Merkel did in her management of the eurozone economy. But he relentlessly framed economic problems in terms of the virtues of austerity economics and budget-cutting. An essentially conservative framing that benefits the goals of Republicans far more than it does the goals of the Democratic base, which are generally reflected in the nominal goals of the Democratic Party.

By 2011, his Grand Bargain had come down to cutting benefits on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid with nominal tax increases for the One Percent. That year, he tried to use the negotiations over the debt ceiling as leverage to get a consensus of Republicans and some Democrats big enough to cut benefits on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. It also showed the Republicans that he was willing to negotiate over the debt ceiling and forego obvious options like invoking the 14th Amendment or minting a platinum coin to make the debt ceiling confrontation meaningless.

The failure of that negotiation led to the "fiscal cliff" arrangement of late 2012. Even though re-elected by a healthy margin, he went back to pursuing the Grand Bargain even before his Second Inauguration. When the Republicans, still negotiating in bad faith, wouldn't make any kind of deal with him, the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy were set to expire at the end of 2012. At the last minute, he insisted on an agreement to restore a substantial amount of the tax cuts for the One Percent. If what he wanted was higher taxes on the wealthy, as he claimed, he could have gotten a lot more of it by just doing nothing and letting the Bush tax cuts expire.

It was after that the Republicans agreed on their Williamsburg Accord approach. They would surely have attempted something similar anyway. But his immediate postelection behavior surely served to increase their confidence that he could be rolled.

Robert Reich in Why Obama and the Democrats Shouldn't Negotiate with Extortionists 09/29/2013 recalls those previous negotiations:

Obama and the Democrats must not give in. They shouldn’t even negotiate with extortionists. ...

The President began negotiations with the Republican bullies in 2011 when they first threatened to default on the nation’s debt if they didn't get the spending cuts they wanted. He negotiated again at the end of 2012 when they threatened to go over the fiscal cliff and take the rest of the nation with them if they didn't get the budget they wanted. Now they want to repeal a law they detest. If we give in again, what’s next? A coup d'etat?
Obama is right when he claims, "I have bent over backwards to work with the Republican Party, and have purposely kept my rhetoric down."

But that's not adequate for dealing with an insurgent party intent on wrecking his Presidency. Austerity economics and credulous assumptions about the good faith of the other side aren't the likely to win this fight on any terms that Democrats can consider good.

And it's important to note that the Sequester and now the shutdown achieve the Republicans' goal of reducing government and imposing even more austerity policies than Obama wants. And, as of now, the Republicans are getting what they want.

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