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The Fat Cat In The Hat, Conservasneetches, And Obama's Budget

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Today is apparently Dr. Seuss Day. Who knew? In the spirit of this not-so-solemn occasion, I considered writing today's entire column in Seuss-ian language.

It would have been fun, for instance, to rewrite the story "The Cat In The Hat." In the original, as we all should remember, the crazy cat invades a household with two bored children, wreaking havoc and destroying just about everything he and his henchthings ("Thing 1" and "Thing 2") touch. A fish serves as the conscience of the children, warning that Mom will be returning at some point, and there are consequences to wild actions, no matter how much fun they may be at the time. Magically, the house is cleaned up and repaired by the cat, who disappears just in time for said parental return.

Of course, you'd have to update it a bit to be relevant.

In "The Fat Cat In The Hat," the storyline would be somewhat different. Instead of a suburban house, the building would have to be labeled "America's financial system." The children would represent the American taxpayer. The Fat Cat In The Hat would come in like a whirlwind, and destroy everything he touches, with his pals "Republicanthing 1" and "DLCthing 2". That part would be the same, in other words. But the fish would be replaced with absolutely nothing, since (as everyone knows) Wall Street has no conscience. When the parents' return is imminent (Democrats returning to power), the Fat Cat In The Hat will offer to fix everything if the children pay him 700 kajillion dollars first, with no strings attached. He will then use the money to become even fatter, to the point where he cannot exit the building. Barack and Michelle Obama enter at the end, and the house is still in a shambles, and the Fat Cat In The Hat tells them he is "too big to fail." Hopefully, a sequel will be written soon.

Or we could take a look at "Hop On Pop." Except, with the left and the right both using the term with wild abandon, we'd have to update that one too:

See the Left
Hop on Populism.
See the Right
Hop on Populism.

Well, now you can see why I didn't write the whole column that way. Ahem.

There are plenty of other ways to update Seuss for today's political world. Conservasneetches, for instance, listening avidly to:

I will not vote for the president's plan
I will not vote for it, Sam-I-Am.

But that's not really what I wanted to write about today, fun as it is to come up with this stuff.

Because I think Barack Obama is out-foxing Washington, and nobody seems to have noticed. Maybe the Lorax should start talking about it or something.

OK, sorry, it's hard to keep Seuss out of your brain once you've triggered that cascade of memories.

President Obama, with much fanfare, released his first budget last week. A couple of points are worth reviewing here. First, this isn't really "the budget." This nuance will get lost in the debate. For some reason, Congress is supposed to pass the budget twice every year. The first go-round (which is what Obama's announcement was about) is passing a "blueprint" budget document. This is a target to shoot for when they get around to passing the actual budget, which is a dozen or so appropriations bills. So details can change from the blueprint to when the checks actually get cut. Something worth remembering in the debate to come.

The second thing worth noting, which some in the media are beginning to take note of, is that budgets cannot be filibustered in the Senate. Meaning Democrats only need 51 votes to pass it. In other words, Senate Republicans will be as powerless as House Republicans when it comes to stopping it. Which means that Democrats will not really have to "water it down" to appease any Republican votes. That is good news for Democrats, and good news for Obama.

But the main point is that this may be the first (but certainly not the last) time Obama shows he can learn from his mistakes. When he attempted "bipartisan outreach" with his stimulus package, he didn't leave any haggling room. His first offering was much more generous to Republican thinking than anyone expected, slating 40% of the total for tax cuts. But this was also pretty much his final position as well -- there was no room for movement, except around the margins. Republicans were initially pleased at the 40% figure, but when they realized that that was all they were going to get, they rejected it. Obama himself even noted this, saying he probably should have offered a lower percentage, and then allowed House Republicans to appear relevant by getting him to change it to 40%. This would have allowed the credit to be spread around a bit, and would have given them some "buy-in" to the total bill (so the thinking goes).

But nobody seems to have noticed that Obama has learned this lesson, and has included some things in his budget that are pretty obviously meant to be "bargained down" by either Republicans or conservative Blue Dog Democrats. Cutting tax breaks for the wealthy on charitable contributions is the most obvious. This is unpopular among charities, for obvious reasons, and will likely not make it through the committee process. That's just the easiest to spot, but there are more examples of these bargaining chips Obama threw in his budget, which will probably wind up on the cutting room floor before it is finalized.

This is smart politics, and shows Obama is learning how to play this game. His stimulus package was a huge victory for Obama, because for all the weeping and wailing, and for all the fierce partisan debates, something like 80% (some peg it as high as 90%) of the core package emerged unscathed. In other words, Obama put forth an idea, the squabbling happened over tiny portions of it, and after all the minutiae-shifting, he got almost exactly what he asked for.

This is what may happen to Obama's budget, as well. Obama himself has inserted some hot-button line items that are sure to be torn apart in the legislative meatgrinder that is Congress. By getting his opponents (and weak supporters) to expend all their energy on relatively small and insignificant parts of this plan, Obama hopes to see the bulk of his ideas pass intact.

He should have the votes to do so easily. He can afford to let a few dozen House Democrats vote against it, and even a handful of Senate Democrats -- and he will still have the votes to pass it.

The big news from the stimulus package fight wasn't the fact that all Republicans but three voted against it (Republicans are known for party loyalty, remember) -- the big news was the incredible cohesion of the Democrats, as every single one of them in the Senate and all but seven of them in the House voted for the final bill. This high-water mark will likely not be achieved in the budget negotiations, but in the end it probably won't matter. Because Obama will still have enough votes to pass it, even with a few defections.

So the thing to watch in the upcoming weeks as the budget blueprint works its way through Congress is the size of the issues people are fighting about. In Obama's stimulus package, there was a gigantic fight over tiny little details, but almost no grand battle on the core part of the bill. Right now, an omnibus budget bill (to pass last year's tardy budget) made it out of the House last week and will be debated in the Senate. The heat of the fight right now is on earmarks -- eight (gasp!) billion dollars of them. But, again, put it in perspective. The total of the earmarks is around one percent of the bill's total price tag. The enormous ideological fight, in other words, is about peanuts. The bill itself (no matter what happens to these peanuts) is set to sail through untouched.

Obama may be attempting this as well with his budget proposal. If he can get Republicans screaming about the tiniest things in the budget, then he has already won the battle over the larger bill.

This has gone mostly unnoticed in the media. The media, especially cable "news" shows, just love a good fight. They don't particularly care what people are fighting about, they just want politicians of both stripes to rant and rave, in order to drive up their ratings. If Obama can misdirect the debate into the swamp of partisan minutiae, then the fight is just as entertaining to the cable "news" shows, and everyone is happy.

So during the budget, keep an eye on what the fight is truly about. Anything less than two percent of the total budget (to pick a completely arbitrary figure) is essentially meaningless. If everyone is solely concerned with nitpicking, that will be good news for Obama's budget as a whole. If the argument moves to more fundamental differences, then Obama will have to work a bit harder selling his plan.

The media will, without doubt, focus on "how many Republican votes Obama gets," while missing the point. Obama won't need Republican votes this time. As long as he keeps his own party (mostly) in line, he can pass his budget largely unscathed.

In other words, Obama will be happy to see the focus on:

One vote, two votes
Red votes, blue votes.

...when in fact he won't need the red votes at all.

 

[Massive apologies to Theodor Geisel for taking such liberties with his works. But hey, if it gets conservasneetches to read, then that's a good thing, right?]

 

Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com