in Kulturkampf

Jonathan Chait Puts Bag Over Head, HuffPo Lights It On Fire

Jonathan Chait is not normally given to hyperbole. But it is telling that his New York Magazine essay a few weeks ago on the sources of liberal discontent with Obama didn’t make the masthead at Huffington Post, while “How Obama Tried to Sell Out Liberalism in 2011” did on Monday. As I keep saying, the internet rewards instant poutrage over context or analysis; I just didn’t expect it from Chait, and I had thought the story of Republican debt ceiling brinkmanship had been set long ago by…well, Republican debt ceiling brinkmanship.

Chait was reacting to this Washington Post piece about the debt ceiling battle, specifically the point where the president was closest to a deal with Speaker of the House John Boehner. The sticking point was revenue:

Much of the $800 billion would have to come from overhauling the tax code — not from higher tax rates. The Republicans believed lower rates and a simpler code would generate new revenue by discouraging cheating and spurring economic growth. If the White House would agree to count that money, the Republican leaders said, then they might have a deal.

That’s not just an example of the aptly-named “Laffer Curve,” the entirely-theoretical notion that lower tax rates equal higher revenue. America is finishing a 32-year experiment in applied Laffer Curve hackery, and the results speak for themselves; but facts don’t vote in Congress.

Furthermore, lower marginal tax rates are less important than effective tax rates. Eliminate loopholes, and you can in fact raise revenue while decreasing rates. In fact, that’s exactly what the president proposed doing to corporate tax rates a few weeks ago. But to Chait, this moment in the negotiations — despite never turning into an actual agreement — was a “sellout of liberalism:”

Okay, so the Republicans were demanding big tax cuts for the rich — lower income tax rates, and keeping in place the tax breaks that most benefit the rich, thereby insuring that the burden of any higher revenue would fall on the non-rich. Obama, incredibly, agreed to that — he agreed to a debt reduction plan that would exempt the wealthy from any sacrifice, and indeed protect them from the possibility that their tax rates would rise when the Bush tax cuts expire.


Now, the story suggests that Obama did not agree to this demand. But he didn’t reject it out of hand, either. Instead, Obama was so desperate for a deal that he decided to proceed as if this all could be ironed out — that $800 billion in mostly imaginary revenue was really pretty much the same thing as $800 billion in real revenue. Bill Daley is quoted in the story saying, “We walked away feeling that we were 80 percent there. But no doubt about it, like any negotiation, the final 20 percent is always the most difficult.” But the difference between imaginary revenue and real revenue isn’t 20 percent of the question, it’s the entire question. The central fiscal issue in American politics is the Republican Party’s insistence on cutting taxes for the rich everywhere and always with no compromise possible. The Post’s story suggests that there was zero progress on this impediment, and Obama wanted a deal so badly he wanted to proceed as if this could be ironed out in the details. (Emphasis mine)

Obama wanted a deal badly? Sure! So did every sane observer in the known universe. A deal that raised the debt ceiling — even if it included bad agreements that could be forgotten after a subsequent election — was more important to an ailing global economy than actual deficit reduction. Chait’s piece only makes sense if you reject the entire oeuvre of Paul Krugman and accept the Republican meme that deficits are the only important measure of the economy.

I’m not sure how that’s “liberal,” or how instant rejection of Boehner’s offer (apparently the only acceptable “liberal” response) would have improved a hostage crisis when House teapublicans held a gavel to the head of the global economy. Teapublican revolt was already in progress, and Boehner’s command of his majority was so tenuous that Obama had to tell his staff to “protect the Speaker.” Is it really so hard to remember the volatility of a moment that passed only nine months ago? The WaPo article continues:

The next morning at the White House, top aides circulated Boehner’s latest offer throughout the West Wing. They met repeatedly in Daley’s office, scouring budget tables and Democratic vote sheets. By mid-afternoon, they told the Republicans that they were about to take a plan to the president for his approval.

A senior administration official said the White House team recognized that the two offers were coalescing and that the time for a decision was at hand. People asked themselves, the official said: Is this something we can sell? Is this a deal we can live with?

At the Capitol, the Republicans waited. Shortly after 6 p.m., Daley called Boehner’s office and said an update was on the way. None came, and four hours later, (Speaker’s chief of staff Barry) Jackson told his staff to go home. The White House, he said, was continuing to “massage their counter on all sections.”

This “massaging the counter” and “asking themselves” is as close as anyone got to selling out liberalism, and it actually suggests the opposite of Chait’s thesis. Because in the meantime, the Senate’s “Gang of Six” was also trying to hammer out a deal — which gave the president some leverage, for a change. Back to the WaPo piece that started all this:

Annoyed, Obama invoked Boehner’s personal friendship with Chambliss, a member of the Gang of Six, warning that Democrats would never support the package under discussion when “your friend Saxby” and other Republicans were willing to stomach as much as $2 trillion in new taxes. Negotiations deteriorated from there.

Boehner said Republicans could accept automatic repeal of the top-end Bush tax cuts as an enforcement trigger only if that were balanced by automatic repeal of a key piece of Obama’s signature health-care law, the individual mandate. Here in the president’s own office, Boehner used the most derisive terminology of conservative critics, calling it “Obamacare.”

I’m going out on a Maddow-inspired limb: the basic narrative thread of failed debt ceiling negotiations in July of 2011 should be that John Boehner is bad at his job, not that Obama is a weak negotiator or suspect in his liberalism. I’m also looking at the text of the presidential oath, which says nothing about being loyal to “liberalism” but requires the oath-taker to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

The president, as Mitt Romney keeps reminding us, is a former Constitutional law professor. The Constitution gives the House of Representatives primary power over the national purse strings. The 112th Congress was not going to deliver a sufficiently liberal outcome in this fight no matter what the president said or did, and no amount of refighting the past will change that.

And I’m seeing something else: an otherwise thoughtful writer who may learn exactly the wrong lesson after serving weak sauce on cold noodles.

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