A new blockbuster report from The Washington Post serves as yet another retrospective on the failed Grand Bargain debt-ceiling negotiations of last summer, despite this being a period of our history that most Americans likely only dimly and hesitantly recall. For most of us, the memory of these few weeks sits in the section of our mental library reserved for those traumatic, drawn-out episodes of ineptitude and failure. It’s lodged in-between the chronicle of that first, agonizing high school break-up and the log book documenting the fear and regret following a night spent watching horror films made for less impressionable audiences. Even if the emotional weight it slammed against our bodies was insignificant in comparison to those personal touchstones, it still left a mark — comparable, perhaps, to a night of too much drink and too little sense. It’s not exactly something we’re thrilled to revisit.
But in this as well as many other ways, the denizens of DC are not like most of us. And it’s not surprising, I suppose, if you keep in mind just what it is that the wise old men (and token women) of Washington think they lost last summer. A great, historic agreement to finally canonize neoliberalism as the bi-partisan reality from which There Is No Alternative; the Holy Grail of reasonable centrism; the long-awaited doling-out of Shared Suffering and Sacrifice; the great reckoning. For a fleeting moment in August, it was so, so close.
And then it was gone.
To the luck of the nation, as well as Obama and the Democratic Party, I might add. Despite his best efforts, Barack Obama was not able to lock-in the kind of austerity measures here in America that are currently sending Europe well on its way to a Lost Decade. He had to give up every Democrat’s dream — cutting social welfare programs in order to lock-in historically low tax rates for the ultra-rich — and settle instead for super committees and triggers, for bare minimums and shifting blame. But while the dominant narrative that’s emerged from the wreckage of this ultimate Washington, DC fustercluck has been one of Boehnerian impotence (characterized by a Speaker of the House finding himself in the uncommon and ignominious position of being the dog wagged vigorously and with true abandon by his Tea Party tail) the Post‘s lengthy report is unique. A few particulars gibe with those shared before, but the picture painted casts the President in a different hue.
In this tableau, it’s Obama, not Boehner, who sits at the center of kids’ table, poised to blow out the candles, but just moments away from going face-first into the frosting.
I’d hesitate to call the article definitive or authoritative. It’s obvious that the sources used, blind and otherwise, ere on the side of the Elephants — and it’s patently obvious that the largest source from inside the White House is a man no longer inside the White House, in no small measure because of how spectacularly poorly he performed during his time inside the White House. I speak, of course, of a Mr. Former Chief of Staff Bill Daley. Ever since Daley was officially fired, after being de facto fired some weeks earlier, it’s not been rare to see stories depicting his time in the White House in an almost tragic light. He was the no-nonsense business-friendly centrist who came in to Get Things Done just like Obama said he wanted. But the ugly partisan goblins and trolls of DC came out with their knives and stabbed Daley in the back, and compelled Obama to wuss out on being a macho, square-jawed Clintonian Third Way hero, becoming instead a typical partisan liberal Democrat running for reelection.
Blah, blah, blah. It’s basically the same story Rahm Emanuel was pitching in the brief period of time between his being more or less fired and his coronation as the new Da Mare. Emanuel, however, had the benefit of actually accomplishing something during his time at 1600, which took the sting away just a little…
Anyway, the gist of the report is that Obama, Boehner, and Cantor were very close to signing off on a deal that would have done a whole bunch of things Republicans wanted — raising Medicare’s eligibility age, lowering cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security, locking-in tax rates not only below those during the Clinton years but potentially below today’s post-Bush cuts, locking-in low rates on capital gains and corporations, and cut-cut-cutting sundry other programs, wages, and departments — in exchange for…raising the debt ceiling and closing out some loopholes in the tax code, which would’ve resulted in somewhere near $800 billion in revenue. In other words, Obama was very, very close to agreeing to a far more draconian and permanent austerity than Republicans could ever dream of achieving, even if they controlled the White House.
Save for Ralph Nader’s, he was not exactly living up to expectations.
And then the so-called Gang of Six — a working-group of Senators, three from each side, tasked with proposing their own deficit-reduction plan — unveiled the outlines of their framework and Obama found a way to, even by the warped and misguided standards he was living by at the time, muck things up further:
The Gang of Six was unable to seal its own deal. But that morning — a Tuesday — theyfinally revealed their workat a closed-door briefing for 64 fellow senators. Coming at that moment, it had an unintended effect.
Desperate to resolve the debt-limit deadlock, senators enthusiastically and publicly latched on to the proposal, which included more taxes and stronger protections for the poor and elderly than the still-secret Obama-Boehner framework. Dozens of senators emerged from the briefing praising the group’s work, including Republicans such as Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), then the third-ranking member of his party’s leadership team. The Gang of Six had “come to a bipartisan agreement,” Alexander told reporters, “and I support it.”
At the White House, Obama showed equal enthusiasm. He made a rare appearance in the White House pressroom, surprising reporters who had been awaiting the regular briefing from press secretary Jay Carney. As Carney stood to the side, the president hailed the plan as “broadly consistent with what we’ve been working on here in the White House and with the presentations that I have made to the leadership when they have come over here.”
In private, however, he and his aides were alarmed. The emerging deal with Boehner looked timid by comparison.
“The Democratic leaders already thought we were idiot negotiators,” Daley said. “So I called Barry [Jackson] and said, ‘What are we going to do here? How are we going to sell Democrats to take $800 billion when Republican senators have signed on to” nearly $2 trillion?
Daley added,“I don’t think it was a mischaracterization on our part to say we’d be beat up miserably by Democrats who thought we got out-negotiated.”
In lauding the plan quickly, Obama hoped to harness the enthusiasm for it on behalf of his own talks. But his appearance that day caused more problems by increasing suspicions among conservatives about the group’s framework — and boosting their distrust of any bipartisan dealmaking.
Coburn, a staunch conservative and the only member of his party who openly acknowledged the need for higher taxes to balance the budget, had developed a close personal bond with Obama dating to their shared opposition to federal budget earmarks when both were senators. But Coburn was “shocked,” he said later, when he saw Obama’s remarks that day on television. His effusive praise for the Gang of Six, Coburn believed, was a tactical mistake that revealed Obama’s inexperience in the ways of Washington. It signaled to skittish conservatives that a tax hike was on the way.
Obama’s announcement, Coburn said in an interview, “absolutely killed anything we were doing with the Republicans.”
From there on out things went from bad to worse, with the White House scrambling to secure something despite their knowing — and their actions belie that they knew — the deal on the table was not only unacceptable but laughably so. It would have spelled the end of Obama’s Presidency, and possibly dealt a stomach-punch to the Democratic Party that would’ve taken a generation to undo. Recall that this is all transpiring mere weeks before the Occupy protests start happening in-earnest. Can you imagine how rambunctious, chaotic, and enraged people would have become if Mr. Hope and Change had been the man responsible for gutting the twin pillars of 20th century liberalism, Social Security and Medicare? Obama would have become a walking (or perhaps flying, since lame ducks don’t walk) American Weimar; the prophesied Barack Hoover Obama.
This is all crying over unspilt milk, I know, since no deal was reached and, as the article makes clear, Obama subsequently decided to give up on any sweeping compromises and focus instead on winning the political argument that is 2012. Predictably, the authors of the Post piece write as if Obama’s volte face in this regard was some kind of tragic act of deep, deep cynicism. (“His goal now was unequivocal: to win a second term,” they finish. How ugly! No great President has ever done something so venal, so selfish, as that. Maneuvering to be reelected… God truly is dead.) Yet though post-August Obama has been a much more impressive figure — a politician willing to give up the always a silly and deeply narcissistic conviction that he was a technocrat messiah, a Great Compromiser, freeing men and women from all walks of life from the crippling affliction of being unable to see the Holy Path of the Reasonable Moderate that lay before them — I don’t think I’ll ever totally get over summer 2011. How could anyone who paid attention and who’s read the retrospectives still not come away shaken?
Even when people’s most destructive delusions and nastiest addictions bring them to the brink of destruction, of themselves everyone around them, most of us find a way to forgive. But that doesn’t mean we forget. For Village scribes, self-styled centrists, and long-time fans of austerity and foes of social democracy alike, the failed Grand Bargain will forever loom in the memory like their own tower of Babel in those sweet moments before it fell. For me, it’s more like the shadow of that great, iron-soled Other Shoe. And I’m just waiting for it to finally drop.