12/10/2010 11:25 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Sports Analogies for Tax Legislation

As the plot around tax legislation in the lame duck session thickens, analogies careen around the broadcast booths and blogs like so many wild pitches. Progressives stunned by the compromise decry, "Obama punted on third down" because of GOP "hostage taking."

These powerful analogies provide more heat than light. The Democrats didn't really punt on third down because the tax bill still has to be written and pass both the House and the Senate. The Republicans didn't really take hostages, but they did play hardball for what they believe in. Or, you could call their operation a "squeeze play."

Now the Progressive caucus in the House seems to be suiting up to also play hardball, using the same threat as the Republicans: no bill at all unless we get one we like better. Ah, a real negotiation! Anyone who has ever made a deal to buy or sell a house, or any other transaction of significance, knows that you have to be prepared to walk away from the negotiating table to win a point you really, really want. Otherwise, you are simply not serious, so why should the other side accommodate? Progressives may be late to the game, but they ready to play.

Readers of this blog know that I enjoy analogies from history. As the tax thing unfolded, various bloggers and commentators suggested that Obama might be channeling:
  • Reagan, for tax-cutting and deficit-exploding the country to prosperity. There is something to this as both sides of Obama's compromise framework show that they really don't care about the impact on the deficit, certainly not in the next two years.
  • Clinton, for playing to the middle and stiffing the base.
  • G. H. W. Bush, for roundly ticking off the base by reversing course on an iconic pledge concerning taxes. Bush incurred the wrath of the Right for going back on his "Read my lips: No new taxes" pledge. Obama has the wrath of the Left for caving on his campaign pledge on top-bracket rates.
  • Carter, for attacking too many issues with weak political tactics.

But there is another analogy going even further back: William Howard Taft. Taft had a distinguished career as a public servant before becoming Teddy Roosevelt's Secretary of War and anointed successor as President. On special assignment. Taft settled long running disputes in Latin America and the Philippines, among many delicate and high-profile assignments. Everyone liked and respected Taft.

But as a successor to the colorful and activist TR, Taft disappointed. Taft busted more trusts, reformed civil service, passed the 16th (income tax) Amendment, and strengthened the nascent regulatory power of the federal government. Taft was the consummate diplomat, inside negotiator, peace-maker, but not a political fighter. He alienated many Republican constituencies, including Teddy Roosevelt. After the enormous disappointment of having his old friend and mentor bolt the party to run against him, Taft left the White House in relief.

But his career of public service was far from over. Taft spent the Wilson years as a professor of law at Yale, his alma mater. He served as president of the American Bar Association. He spoke out against Prohibition, predicting its many bad effects. As America got involved in World War I, President Wilson called on Taft to co-chair the powerful National War Labor Board. Taft also founded and led the League to Enforce Peace, a group advocating for League of Nations.

But in 1921, Taft realized his real life dream when he became the nation's 10th Chief Justice, and the only person to ever lead both the Executive and Judicial Branches. He unified the then disparate federal court system, giving the Supreme Court both more control of its docket and administrative control of the federal courts. Before he died, Taft convinced Congress to authorize the United States Supreme Court building, giving the third branch of government its own home. Before that, the Supreme Court met in the Old Senate chamber of the Capitol.

All admired Taft's keen judicial mind, his even temperament, and his abundant fair-mindedness. Justice Felix Frankfurter summed it up by saying he it was "difficult for me to understand why a man who is so good a Chief Justice... could have been so bad as President."

So where's the sports analogy? Progressives want Obama to be their quarterback, pitcher, goalie, and head coach -- all at once. Maybe Obama, like Taft, feels himself better suited to be the referee.