In the “fiscal cliff” negotiations, the Republicans are in desperate need of a game-changer. That is, the current dynamics in Washington DC are so bad right now for Republicans that they are likely to go off a political cliff. President Obama and the Democrats have always been looking to push the GOP into the abyss, of course, but lately, Republicans have volunteered to stand at the edge of the precipice and lean far over.
In a nutshell, Republicans need to understand that the real struggle is not with the Obama administration; instead, the real struggle is for American political opinion, including the broad middle that preferred Obama to Romney, but nevertheless feels no great trust or affection for the re-elected 44th President.
If Obama is seen as a fellow who wants to move the economy to a better place by raising taxes on the Koch Brothers, he will win. But if Obama is seen as an arrogant and unconstitutional power-grabber, he will lose. By that logic, then, Republicans should shift their perceived focus, from defending the low tax rates of billionaires to defending the US Constitution against executive Caesarism.
On Thursday, November 28, amidst delicate negotiations over the “fiscal cliff” on Capitol Hill, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner presented Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner with a radical proposal: the Legislative Branch should cede over to the Executive Branch the power to raise the debt ceiling by executive fiat. If this cession of fiscal authority were ever to happen—if Congress were to lose its right to vote “yea” or “nay” on debt-limit increases—that would be an epochal political power shift. It would mean that for the first time in US history, the President would have complete dominance on spending issues. And that’s a kind of dominance that no president should be trusted with, let alone Obama.
Yet one can’t blame Geithner for asking on behalf of his boss. Obama has hardly been the first big spender in US history, but he has certifiably been the biggest spender ever, so he needs that debt-ceiling increase. Yet interestingly, in his first term, Obama showed that he understood the political risk of big spending; in the run-up to the 2012 election, we might recall, the President was afraid to ask for an increase in the debt ceiling, for fear that the resulting political backlash could hurt his re-election chances.
But now, of course, Obama is liberated—liberated to be as hubristic as he wants to be. And if that means spending more money to build his “legacy,” then so be it. As we have seen over the last month, he certainly isn’t interested in spending reductions.
Today, the national debt is $16.330 trillion, and it’s rising fast; the debt appears destined to hit the current debt-ceiling limit of $16.394 trillion in January.
Of course, for the nation as a whole, the deficit and the debt ceiling are major political and economic issues. If the Republicans in Congress wish to have any impact on federal spending levels, the requirement for a specific vote on a higher debt ceiling is perhaps the best lever that they possess.
Thus there was little chance that Congress would go along with Geithner’s suggestion that it emasculate itself. Even Democrats on the Hill would be leery of that sort of surrender of their power.
So when Geithner made the suggestion to McConnell in that Thursday meeting, McConnell didn’t just say “no”; according to The Weekly Standard’s Fred Barnes, he “burst into laughter.” For his part, Boehner said on Sunday that he was “flabbergasted.”
And that was mostly the end of the story, as far as McConnell and Boehner were concerned. In the Republican leadership’s view, it’s reasonable to surmise that Geithner and the Obama administration were simply beginning their negations with an aggressive opening gambit. After McConnell and Boehner said “no,” they probably figured that the negotiations would then commence on a more serious plane.
Thus the Republican duo simply laughed off Geithner’s suggestion, and McConnell’s press aides evidently shared the “laughter” anecdote with friendly reporters, such as Barnes. Meanwhile, most of the media simply ignored the story; neither The Washington Post nor The New York Times took note of McConnell’s mirthful moment. Within hours of Geithner’s exchange, the media caravan had moved on.
And that was a big mistake. A huge missed opportunity. Once again, the issue is not wheeling and dealing with Geithner and the Democrats, which is obviously the sort of inside game that McConnell and Boehner feel most comfortable playing. Instead, the real issue—the real opportunity—is playing the outside game. That is, the game that includes the American people.
As an aside, Grover Norquist was right when he said on Sunday’s “Meet the Press” that all fiscal cliff negotiations should be on C-SPAN. Norquist knows that Republicans can’t win if they go behind closed doors; they will only have a chance of winning if the American people can see, for themselves, what the Democrats are trying to do. And my suggestion here is in the same spirit; the Republicans must make their case to the people, not to the Beltway.
The Republican leadership thought that Geithner’s suggestion was ridiculous, and so they just laughed it off. But they should have done far more than that. After all, spending and over-spending are important issues to most Americans. Even many Democrats, including this Democrat, are worried about too much federal spending. Thus, for the Obamans to try to pull a fast one so that they can spend more—well, that is a serious matter.
Indeed, according to Article One of the Constitution, the Congress has the power of the purse, including the power “to borrow money on the credit of the United States.” And for Obama to propose that the Congress simply turn over that precious power to his Executive Branch is not just an insult to the 112th Congress. It is also an insult to all other Congresses, past and future, and to the sacred document of the Constitution itself.
McConnell and Boehner should have recognized that Geithner’s suggestion was really an unconstitutional power play, and they should have called him out.
More precisely, here’s what Republicans should have done: on Thursday, as soon as Geithner made his silly suggestion, the GOPers should have asked Geithner to repeat himself, so that there could be no doubt as to what exactly the Treasury man had said. And if Geithner had committed that suggestion to paper, they should have scooped that up, too, for future use.
Then McConnell and Boehner should have politely ended the meeting and walked out into the Capitol hallway, where reporters were milling around, waiting for some news, and he should then have given then some news—spectacular news. Leaving Geithner behind, McConnell and Boehner, between them, should have laid out their case before the American people, invoking a famous past example of presidential overreach, FDR’s “court-packing” plan, which we will examine in a moment:
Ladies and gentlemen of the media, we are speaking now, not only to you, but to the people of the United States. Folks, we have just heard a serious proposal from Treasury Secretary Geithner that is so outrageous, so ludicrous, so insulting, so unconstitutional that we have to report it to all of you.
After the Obama administration has run up an additional five trillion dollars in national debt, the President now wants a radical new “budget packing” plan—that is, a plan to unilaterally arrogate spending power, just as Franklin Roosevelt wanted to arrogate judicial power with his “court-packing” plan back in 1937. “Court-packing” then, “budget-packing” now; it’s the same story of the arrogance of power.
We might note that just six years ago, when Barack Obama was himself a US Senator in 2006, he declared that raising the debt ceiling above $9 trillion was a “leadership failure.” Well, now that national debt has nearly doubled, to more than $16 trillion. And now Secretary Geithner has the unconstitutional gall and gumption to suggest that the Congress, the first branch of government whose powers are enumerated in the constitution, give up a vital check against reckless overspending of the type we have seen over the last four years.Such words from McConnell and Boehner would have caused a sensation. They would have led the political news that night on all the networks—even MSNBC.
Ladies and gentlemen, we are truly astonished. But we are more than astonished, we are alarmed. Therefore, we are issuing this warning to the administration and this pledge to the America people and their sacred Constitution: in the House, Speaker Boehner will immediately put Secretary Geithner’s radical suggestion to a vote, where we have no doubt that every Republican—and more than a few debt- and deficit-averse Democrats—will vote “no” on this big-spending, budget-packing power grab.
And in the Senate, Leader McConnell will seek to attach an amendment so that Republicans and likeminded Democrats can also vote “no” on this big-spending, budget-packing, power-grabbing proposal from the Obama administration. In addition, Leader McConnell pledges to use the filibuster and all his other parliamentary powers to stop the business of the US Senate until Secretary Geithner retracts and renounces his unconstitutional suggestion.
And we call upon the American people—who care about the Constitution as much as we do—to join us in demanding that this presidential “budget-packing” power grab be thwarted immediately, and forever.
After all, most Americans have an instinctive fear of power-grabbing and power-aggrandizement. And that was the Republican opportunity: to get the current debate off of the relatively narrow issue of fiscal cliffs and on to the broader issue of Obama’s presidential power—his use of it and abuse of it.
All re-elected presidents face the danger of hubris in their second term. The classic cautionary tale is Franklin D. Roosevelt’s infamous 1937 proposal to expand the nine-member Supreme Court with six of his own new appointees—the notorious “court-packing” plan. FDR’s proposal came on the heels of his 1936 landslide re-election, in which he not only won 46 of 48 states but also reduced Republican numbers in the House to just 76 and in the Senate to just 16. The Republican Party was thus on the edge of extinction when it found its salvation in opposing to the court-packing plan. In 1937-38, the hardy few Republicans joined with Jeffersonian Southern Democrats to oppose the increasingly imperial FDR—and they won.
In 1938, the GOP won a huge comeback victory in the midterm elections; among the Republicans elected to the Senate that year was a future GOP superstar, Sen. Robert A. Taft of Ohio. And, for all practical purposes, the forward motion of the peacetime New Deal came to a halt in FDR’s second term.
Indeed, it’s fair to say that the 1938 midterms preserved the viability of the two-party system in the US.
Eight decades later, contemporary Republicans could have done the same thing. Just as anti-FDR Republicans found that they had new allies among restive Southern Democrats, so McConnell and the Republicans would have found that they had allies in a “budget-packing” fight among Democrats. There’s no way, for example, that Democratic Senators such as Mary Landrieu and Mark Prior, to name just two, wouldn’t have felt obligated to side with McConnell against imperious Washington. Their respective re-election imperatives, in the Jeffersonian states of Louisiana and Arkansas, would have demanded their opposition.
So yes, Obama seems to be in more danger than previous presidents of second-term hubris and overreach, and that overreach could yet save the Republicans, in spite of themselves.
History tells us that even in the midst of seeming defeat, it’s possible to reclaim victory. The key to such a turnaround is to see the strategic situation clearly, even amidst all the confusion, and then to reach for the winning counter-stroke. In the Battle of the Marne in 1914, the French were reeling under the German onslaught, and so they did the one thing the Germans weren’t expecting; they counterattacked. The Kaiser’s overconfident army was shocked and fell back in confusion. This was the “Miracle of the Marne”; Paris was saved, and with the help of the British and the Americans, the French ultimately won World War One.
The key, now, for the Republicans is to have their own “Marne Moment” of clarity. They need to see that the time has come to stop negotiating with Obama. It’s his economy now, he wants to do everything his way, so he now owns it.
Instead, Republicans must realize that the larger battle—the greater war—is Obama’s attempt not only to win a big political victory and break the Republicans, but also to transform the American constitutional system permanently. That’s a fight worth fighting.
Indeed, if Republicans take up that fight, they will gain allies in perhaps unexpected places. But first they must change the focus of definition of the fight—from mere tax rates to the the grander question of the future of American constitutional liberty. If the current crop of Republican leaders has a hard time seeing the immediate struggle in those terms, well, that’s a loss for them, to be sure, but it’s a bigger loss for the rest of us and for our country.
So once again, the key for Republicans is putting the Geithner Grab in context, so as to start building a new narrative for Obama’s second term. A new narrative, that is, that shows that Obama is wildly exaggerating his mandate and dangerously seeking to concentrate power in the Presidency.
Here are two more examples of Obama overreach that feed into the same negative narrative:
First, Obama is evidently serious about trying to jam through Susan Rice as his Secretary of State. She is, of course, discredited on the basis of her Benghazi deception, as well as for other blemishes on her record. In addition, she also obviously lacks the measured personality needed for effective diplomacy. As Rice said recently, “People know not to mess with me. And if they haven’t learned, and they try, then they will learn.” Such is not the preferred tone and meter of, say, Talleyrand or Metternich.
Second, Politico reports that Obama is already planning for his Versailles-like presidential library. Its projected cost—wait for it—is $500 million. That’s right: The economy is still in doldrums, and we could be going into a double dip, and yet Obama will be taking time away from his duties to schmooze fatcats, here and around the world. Is this what the hard-pressed middle class voted for last month? A president who will be cultivating the same moneyed class that he was supposedly railing against during the campaign?
Yet of course, Obama can get away with those mistakes—and get away with many more mistakes—if the Republicans can’t figure out how to oppose him. Obama may not be a very good president, but if his opposition is worse, he will do okay, even as the nation suffers.
So is too late to revive the issue of Obama’s debt-ceiling power grab? We shall see; we will have to find if Geithner continues to make it a key part of his bargaining agenda.
Yet it’s definitely never too late to make an issue of Obama’s second-term hubris; that’s a guaranteed constant over the next four years.
Unfortunately, in the meantime, even as Obama overreaches, Republicans are looking for new ways to lose—and finding them.
In the next installment, we will see just how McConnell and Boehner are finding those new ways of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.