In honor of Steven Spielberg's saccharine, schmaltzy and overrated Lincoln, let me start with a story. After all, if overexposed author Doris Kearns Goodwin (her Team of Rivals was the loose basis for the politically correct "Lincoln") is to be believed, Mr. Lincoln was fond of storytelling during key, and often contentious, policy negotiations.
My personal story is revealing. I once sued Universal Studios for their unlawful use of my Monk trademark (Monk Magazine, the Mad Monks' Guides, Monk Media., etc.) in their production of the popular TV hit, Monk, about an obsessive-compulsive detective played by my erstwhile L.A. neighbor, Tony Shalhoub. While I cannot reveal the exact result of that lawsuit -- let alone the reverse brand confusion theory that undergirded it -- I can say that I learned an important lesson that should guide Republican budget negotiations from here till the 2014 midterm:
You Have Nothing To Lose By Sticking By Your Principles.
This is because, just like my status as a small, but infinitely dangerous, media producer up against mega-corporate entertainment behemoth Vivendi-Universal -- whose lawyers arrogantly threatened to make me pay for their outrageously high legal fees if I lost in court -- the Republicans have all the power. If the country goes over the fiscal cliff, the Republicans in Congress won't lose, the president will.
After all, Obama promised to be the great conciliator. Obama promised he would strike a deal on the fiscal cliff. Obama promised he would balance the budget without trimming Obamacare, Medicaid, student loans, or other government welfare. In fact, the president's latest budget proposal laughably and insultingly includes increases in government expenditures on infrastructure, plus an outrageous expansion of unemployment insurance (if there ever was a device to discourage job-seeking, surely it is long-term unemployment insurance). Obama feels confident he can keep most of his big spending promises, and still get the GOP to cave.
However, the GOP will only cave if they mistakenly see themselves as more at risk than they actually are. But, if the GOP rightly sees themselves as IED-toting David's against the Obama big government Goliath, they win. Because there is no one more powerful in political life than an intransigent bomb-wielding victim with nothing left to lose. It is how Al Qaeda and the Taliban continue to bedevil the U.S. in Afghanistan (what is suicide bombing but the fullest evidence of an opponent willing to risk everything). It is how the Palestinians keep securing concessions from Israel, and now permanent statehood status at the UN.
The little guy wins repeatedly if he rightly sees himself as the little guy. If he falsely projects himself as a big guy (ask Newt Gingrich and Donald Trump), with everything on the line, he loses. In my tragic hubris, I stupidly did not see myself with ruthless honesty in my hardball negotiations with Universal. I failed to see how transparently empty Universal's threats against me were. So what if they made me pay for their legal fees. They would spend a lifetime trying to collect from a penniless little guy like me. And their trampling of a little guy's intellectual property rights would not sit so well with a liberal California jury.
Moreover, as an expert PR professional, I could have worked the levers of media to permanently damage not only their corporate brand but also the beloved brand of the duplicitous Mr. Shalhoub and the popular, and hugely profitable, Monk TV show. With a surprise hit on their hands, Universal had far more to lose than I ever could or would.
This is precisely the go-for-broke mindset that the GOP needs to adopt now. Mr. Obama can tour the country demagoguing the populace that propelled him to reelection, but it will mean nada in budget negotiations between the two parties. The public does not directly vote on policy, except in rare referendums in select states (and even those referendums still must go through the legislative and legal process).
We live in a republic (thank you, Founding Fathers!), where elected representatives make decisions for us. Moreover, most GOP representatives are in gerrymandered districts filled with Tea Party deficit hawks that do not want their elected leaders budging on taxes, welfare, or entitlements. If they fail to compromise, these conservative representatives will not be thrown out of office. They will be thrown out of office if they, in fact, do compromise.
This is why the GOP should not budge one inch on taxes. Especially regarding Obama's increased taxes on capital gains and dividends, which even Obama supporters like Costco CEO James Sinegal are protecting against by offering special dividends this year (which empirically refutes the liberal lie that corporations and wealthy individuals are insensitive to tax hikes). Combined with some lip service about increased revenue from closing loopholes, the Republicans should let the president twist in the wind, as he naively barnstorms across the fruited plain in a fruitless attempt to force GOP surrender.
Despite the ham-fisted propaganda efforts of Spielberg and Goodwin, and their race-baiting allies on MSNBC, Barack Obama is no Abraham Lincoln. His grandstanding will have zero impact on the votes of diehard conservatives, who can blithely say "no, no, no" with zero electoral consequences to themselves, yet with unmitigated disaster for the President and the Republic.
President Obama, you must lead. It is you who must "settle." Or it will be you who gets blamed for the second credit downgrade and second recession in five years, not your oft-blamed predecessor, George W. Bush.