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Divide and Conquer

The president’s real agenda.

Jul 25, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 42 • By FRED BARNES
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Soon after Mitch McConnell joined the debt limit talks, his suspicions grew. An agreement with President Obama on raising the limit by $2.4 trillion​—​and tied to serious spending cuts​—​looked impossible. The more he heard from Obama and his aides in the private sessions at the White House, the more he felt that no good could come from the talks. They would lead to a bad deal, harm to Republicans, or both.

Politics Poker Picture

Thomas Fluharty

McConnell, the Senate minority leader, did not participate in the earlier negotiations, seven weeks of them, guided by Vice President Biden. Senate Republican whip Jon Kyl had taken part in those talks, which were friendlier and far more productive than the meetings run by Obama. Biden, despite his reputation as Washington’s premier windbag, had restrained himself. The president hasn’t. He’s talked incessantly and for so long that others often gave up trying to get a word in. Obama dominated one session so completely that only one of the four Republicans spoke and then only in short spurts.

What appalled McConnell was Obama’s insistence that even relatively small spending cuts be accompanied by tax increases. These were “little stuff,” one Republican says, and not particularly controversial. That wasn’t the only rollback from the Biden talks. Obama’s aides had reduced the size of the cuts.

They were also eager for Republicans to accede to precisely the tax increases​—​on corporate jet owners, the oil and gas industry, hedge funds​—​that buttress Obama’s reelection ploy of positioning himself as foe of the rich and defender of everyone else. These tax increases were presented as offsets to a specific spending reduction, but they didn’t come close.

Nor was the schedule of spending curbs offered by Obama credible. Only $2 billion would occur in 2012, with “empty promises of more to follow,” McConnell said. 

After several rounds of Obama-led talks, Senate majority leader Harry Reid noted the obvious: Republicans simply aren’t going to agree to tax increases. The president was undeterred. He continued to toss out ideas Republicans were sure to find unacceptable. At the fifth of the daily White House talks, economic adviser Gene Sperling outlined a plan for a deficit cap. It had one problem. If the cap were breached, it would trigger an automatic tax hike (as well as spending cuts). Kyl, the only Republican to speak during the meeting, rejected it.

Obama hasn’t made compromise any easier for Republicans. He’s made it harder, perhaps on purpose. He’s operated as if he’s in full command of the situation. And Republicans have no option but to go along or be blamed for blocking an increase in the debt limit. Eighty percent of Americans want a “balanced” deal, Obama declared at his press conference at the end of the week. In the president’s lexicon, “balanced” is the same as “shared sacrifice” and “trade-offs” and “tough choices.” They all mean higher taxes. 

After sitting through two days of talks, McConnell was ready to bolt. He delivered a sharply worded speech on the Senate floor. “I have little question that as long as this president is in the Oval Office, a real solution is unattainable,” he said. “In my view the president has presented us with three choices: smoke and mirrors, tax hikes, or default. Republicans choose none of the above.”

The next day, McConnell proposed an escape hatch, a jerrybuilt scheme to allow the debt ceiling to rise without Republicans voting for it. And it would keep them from becoming, in McConnell’s phrase, “co-owners” of the Obama economy.

House Republicans aren’t ready to escape so cleanly. They may affix $1 trillion in cuts in spending​—​cuts agreed to by both sides in the Biden talks​—​to McConnell’s legislative device. But that assumes they’ll ultimately embrace it, which is anything but certain.

The state of things after two months of negotiations suggests Republicans made three mistakes. One, their leverage in a fight over a debt limit increase turns out to be far less than McConnell, among others, had figured. Two, by agreeing to secret talks, they let Obama and Democrats pretend to support deep spending cuts without offering any public evidence, like a budget. And three, they played into Obama’s hands by walking out of the Biden talks and calling on the president to take over.

With Obama in charge, he and Republicans are farther apart than ever on a deal. And Obama thinks he has Republicans right where he wants them​—​divided. Indeed, Republicans are split on whether to persist in rejecting a tax increase in further talks, adopt the McConnell approach, or leapfrog the debt limit debate and try to enact spending cuts and a balanced budget amendment. The leapfroggers are in the majority.

The president’s soaring confidence is reflected in his three press conferences. On June 29, he concentrated on attacking Republicans. On July 11, he was more statesmanlike. On July 15, he grinned and bantered with reporters. With a few exceptions, they’re an easy mark for him.

Their questions are mostly softballs. Asked if he still has hope for a bipartisan agreement, Obama said he does. According to the transcript, this followed: “Don’t you remember my campaign? (Laughter).”

The president has been less genial away from the prying eyes of the press and the public. In the private talks, he’s dominated the discussion with the eight most senior members of Congress in an overbearing way not likely to lead to compromise. He’s been argumentative. He’s come across as President Blowhard.

After Sperling briefed the group on the deficit cap proposal, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi addressed another subject. When a Republican participant criticized the deficit cap, Obama interrupted with a monologue. When the Republican tried to speak a second time, the president quickly cut him off and delivered another sermon on why the criticism was wrong.

Obama has taken the tack that he must respond to everything that’s said, whether by a Republican, a Democrat, or even Biden. And his responses, like those in his press conferences, are never brief. But who’s going to complain about Obama’s verbosity, at least in his presence? He’s the president.

The contrast with the Biden talks is stark. Biden is among the most likable people in Washington, and after 36 years in the Senate, he knows how to run a meeting amicably. He took the trouble to confer with participants to decide beforehand what should be discussed at the meetings. 

Republicans believe Obama isn’t used to being challenged. “Any time you take a policy difference from him and stick to it, he doesn’t like it,” House majority leader Eric Cantor says. Cantor has taken exception to Obama frequently. He may be the president’s least favorite Republican. Kyl, who’s also objected repeatedly to Obama’s ideas, is probably next on the list. But in his case, the president hasn’t let on.

The Obama presidency was three days old when the first Obama-Cantor run-in occurred. When Cantor raised a question about a tax credit, Obama declined to argue the merits. “I won,” he said. “So I think on that one, I trump you.” A few weeks later, at a White House summit on entitlement reform, he characterized Cantor as an obstructionist. Obama added, “I’m going to keep on talking to Eric Cantor. Someday, sooner or later, he’s going to say, ‘Boy, Obama had a good idea.’ ”

That day hasn’t arrived. In the White House deliberations, House Speaker John Boehner has deferred to Cantor, just as McConnell has to Kyl. Cantor has argued relentlessly for spending cuts and against raising taxes. When he brought up the possibility of an abbreviated extension of the debt limit last week, the president answered with a lecture. “Don’t call my bluff,” he said. “I am not afraid to veto and I will take it to the American people. .  .  . This may bring my presidency down, but I will not yield on this.”

Even before this clash, the White House had made Cantor its villain-of-the-moment. Democrats and the press joined in the Cantor-bashing. The media were quickly brimming with leaks from the talks aimed at putting Cantor in an unfavorable light and causing friction between him and Boehner. In a Senate speech, Reid said Cantor “shouldn’t even be at the table.” Democratic senator Chuck Schumer of New York also chimed in. The Democratic Senate Campaign Committee sent out a fundraising letter attacking Cantor.

The pillorying of Cantor could have been spontaneous, but Republicans doubt it. Obama grew up in the politics of Chicago, an Illinois Republican noted. “The president views Eric as a greater threat to him than Boehner,” the Republican told me. The treatment of Cantor is “Chicago-style politics​—​destroy him.”

Cantor has survived and emerged safe, sound, and a hero to conservatives and the class of House Republicans elected last year. And Boehner isn’t going to part ways with Cantor. He remembers Obama’s attempt last year to make him the chief villain in Washington. It didn’t work. Now Obama is running out of devils to berate. Could McConnell be next? Targets that big Obama can’t handle.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.

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