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Joel Weinberger

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Budget Bullying

Posted: 08/01/11 01:58 AM ET

So let me see if I understand this. The Democrats control the presidency and the Senate. The Republicans control the House. Obama inherited a fiscal mess widely attributed to Bush's bad policies after Bush inherited a surplus from Clinton. And the issue for the past several weeks is the bad economy, now generally attributed to Obama since it has persisted for two years.

Unemployment is at completely unacceptable levels. And the solution has become how much to cut the deficit instead of how to create jobs. With most of the power vested in the hands of the Democrats and history indicating that Republican policies helped get us into this mess, the solution became to accede to the Republican demands that we cut spending but not raise revenues or spend on job creation programs. The compromise so widely heralded now as saving us from default is about not giving the Republicans all of the cuts they demanded in their initial two bills and putting off further legislation until after the presidential election. Revenue is off the table. This is not even open to discussion and this is accepted.

So how did we get here? How did the Democrats get from an apparent position of strength to one of abject weakness and surrender? How is it that Republicans can complain because they didn't achieve total victory and the Democrats declare a victory because they did not have to agree to unconditional surrender?

Here's how. It's a classic case of giving in to a bully. When you do so, a bully always raises the stakes because the bully has learned that you will cave. Past success has emboldened the bully. The bully has contempt for the victim and the victim hopes that the bully will leave him or her alone if only he or she gives in. It never works.

Obama began his presidency with enormous strength. He won the presidency handily in an historic election promising change. The Democrats also had both houses of the Congress. What did Obama do with this strength? He tried to cajole and convince Republicans to join his causes. He became intimidated by the possibility of filibuster in the Senate to the point of not introducing any legislation until he felt he could forestall a filibuster. Instead of needing 51 votes, he concluded that he needed 60. He didn't use the bully pulpit of the presidency to attack Republicans for trying to thwart the will of the people by blocking legislation that the majority of their representatives wanted. Instead he met and met and tried to pry loose one or two of them.

What did the Republicans learn? They learned that Obama was weak and could be bullied. They learned that although they lost the election in every branch of government, they didn't have to compromise in any way. In fact, the more intransient they became, the more they could obstruct the Democratic agenda and the more they could get. They learned that they could wave documents during State of the Union messages in insulting ways and even yell, "You lie!" They learned that these tactics could lead to electoral gains. And now they've learned that they can bring the country to the brink of disaster and the president will cave.

We can expect this to continue. We can expect more brinksmanship in this game of chicken they have embarked on. After all, they've won every time. Just one more house of Congress and the presidency to go. The problem with this kind of game is that, at some point, you can miscalculate and bring it all crashing down. Another problem is that it's not good for our country even when it works. But that's the road we're on and that's the road we'll stay on as long we have this president or as long as he continues to govern this way and the Democrats go along.