The Magazine

Running on Empty

The wheels come off the liberal juggernaut, but it’s still dangerous.

Jun 28, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 39 • By FRED BARNES
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The Obama presidency is nearly out of gas. So are the Democratic majorities in the Senate and House. Yet the White House and congressional Democrats aren’t surrendering. They’re still intoxicated with their “historic majorities” and bent on enacting more landmark liberal legislation this year, including cap and trade, a value-added tax (VAT), and who knows what else.

Running on Empty

Photo Credit: Gary Locke

Are they fantasizing? Not entirely. The odds—and the political climate—are against them. But their ideological ambitions are undiminished and they have a sense of urgency. They know their majorities will be crippled (if not eliminated) in the midterm elections on November 2, which means they must enact the remaining parts of the agenda in 2010 or put them back in the cupboard of liberal dreams, maybe for decades. So it’s now or never.

There are two time slots for passing these bills, both difficult. The first is between now and whenever Congress recesses in the fall. Prospects look bleak in this time frame for approving anything except the final version of the financial reform bill. The second is when a lame duck Congress, filled with defeated and retired senators and House members, convenes in December.

Lame duck sessions don’t ordinarily enact major policy changes, but this one could be an exception. It is likely to meet after the president’s commission on reducing the deficit announces its recommendations, which may include a VAT. Democrats insist they’re not scheming to pass what is in effect a national sales tax. But a Republican official in the Senate told me a White House aide, in a recent chat, had raised the possibility of enacting one in the December session. A VAT has obviously crossed the president’s mind.

One can imagine the pressure that might be exerted to pass a VAT in a fiscal “emergency” in December: the deficit and the national debt exploding, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner reporting purchasers of government debt are suddenly backing off because of America’s fiscal mess, the president and his commission vowing to match the tax hike with spending cuts. The result: a VAT becomes law, most of the cuts don’t. President Reagan experienced a similar squeeze in the 1980s when he agreed to a tax increase in exchange for two times that amount of spending cuts. Taxes went up, the spending cuts went away.

What encourages Obama and Democrats is Obamacare. After the victory of Republican Scott Brown in the Massachusetts Senate race in January, the health care bill was regarded as dead. His election was interpreted as a mandate to discard it. But the corpse of Obamacare rose from the grave.

It didn’t matter that the legislation was unpopular and that the president had been breathtakingly unsuccessful in selling it to the American public. With their big majorities in the Senate and House, Democrats could pass Obamacare. And they did.

“Cap and trade” climate-change legislation is even more unpopular than Obamacare. But that’s hardly an impediment to pushing for its passage—especially if you’re thrilled with the idea of being a martyr for liberalism. Besides, it passed the House a year ago. So there’s only the Senate to go and probably no more than ten Democrats who must be cajoled into voting for it (the others are already on board).

Obama, however, didn’t help with his dreary Oval Office speech last week, a third of which was devoted to promoting cap and trade. He invoked a string of clichés about “the consequences of our inaction” and the “new future that will benefit all of us .  .  . only if we seize the moment.” And he told us he “will not settle for .  .  . the idea that this challenge is somehow too big and too difficult to meet.” That’s an empty pledge if there ever was one. And who said the challenge was too big anyway?

Once again, Obama declined to deal with the discredited science on global warming which was the impetus for the bill. Cap and trade would set an arbitrary ceiling on carbon emissions in America, imposing higher energy costs on consumers and businesses while having little or no effect on reducing temperatures. The president dismissed cost concerns in a couple of sentences.

The speech bombed on Capitol Hill, where the Democrats’ majorities are fraying. Senate Democrats did defeat a bid to bar the Environmental Protection Agency, run by global warmists, from imposing a carbon cap on its own. “The White House spun it as a victory,” a Republican aide said. “The problem is they didn’t get to 60.” To pass cap and trade, Democrats would need 60 votes to overcome an expected Republican filibuster.

Another blow to Obama was the rude response to his letter to congressional leaders last week asking for another $50 billion so states can avert “massive layoffs of teachers, police and firefighters.” Charles Lane of the Washington Post demolished Obama’s pitch as inaccurate and exaggerated. At best, the president may get a portion of his request, funded (against his wishes) by unused stimulus money.

A final question: Why in the world would a Democrat facing a tough reelection challenge in November vote for cap and trade or any other such legislation? Here’s the essence of the reasoning: Republicans are bound to attack you no matter how you vote, so why not play a role in making history? It won’t kill your reelection chances.

That’s not all. There’s a story line for wavering Democrats. You’ll have more money than your Republican opponent. The tea party people will make life difficult for Republican candidates. And look what happened in May in the special House election in Pennsylvania. The Democrat won by sounding like a conservative and stressing local issues. You can do the same.

If you sense there’s something faintly familiar about this advice, you’re right. In 2006, Republican leaders assured worried incumbents they’d be loaded with campaign money, plus earmarks for their districts or states and scads of local issues to latch onto. Many Republicans were comforted by this advice and then lost their seats. A similar fate awaits Democrats in 2010.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.


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