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Munich on the Potomac: The Republican Take-No-Prisoners Strategy -- and Obama's Conciliation

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Republicans in both Houses of Congress are becoming more and more flagrant in their strategy of holding the governing process hostage for far-right demands not shared by most voters. And the pity is that the strategy is mostly working.

The more that the Obama Administration tries to meet the Republicans half way, the more extreme and implacable their demands become.

In the first ring of the circus, we have the confirmation derby. In the past few days, the Republicans have stonewalled confirmation of three key appointees: Thomas Perez, President Obama's nominee to be Labor Secretary; Gina McCarthy, the president's designee to lead the EPA; and Penny Pritzker to head the Commerce Department. Republicans are threatening a filibuster if Majority Leader Harry Reid moves these nominations to the Senate floor.

At her confirmation hearing, Gina McCarthy was subjected to nearly 1,100 written questions, an unprecedented hazing. Republican senators then boycotted the live hearing itself.

This latest strategy of blockage comes on top of unprecedented stalling on judicial nominations, notwithstanding the administration's practice of checking with Republicans to see which proposed judges might win their approval -- a courtesy that has added to the delay, and one that Republicans have taken as another sign of weakness. The Crucial DC Circuit Court of Appeals has remained in conservative hands, more than four years after Obama's inauguration, because Republicans refuse to confirm an appointee.

Nominees more to the GOP's ideological liking are rewarded with quick confirmation. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, a friend of Wall Street and of fiscal austerity, sailed through 71-26, with almost half the Republican Senate caucus in support.

Meanwhile, in the next ring of the circus, House Speaker John Boehner is looking forward to the next debt ceiling showdown to see what else he can hold for ransom. According to several authoritative accounts, this time Republicans will not stop with budget cuts, but will also use the debt ceiling to demand changes in the tax code, regulatory rollbacks and pro-industry shifts in energy policy. Details are to be spelled out at a strategy meeting this coming Wednesday.

Obama's term still has more than three and a half years to run and Democrats still have a 55-45 majority in the Senate, but the Republicans are treating him like the lamest of lame ducks. It should be clear by now -- meeting these people halfway only whets their appetite.

And in the third ring of the circus, Republicans are pummeling the administration for intelligence and security lapses at Benghazi. This is a twofer for the GOP, since it whacks the next likely Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, as well as the present incumbent. Things will only get more intense when Obama nominates a successor to retiring FBI chief Robert Mueller III, and Republicans will predictably attack the administration for missing warning signs about the Boston Marathon attacks.

This is not to excuse the Republican obstructionism. It has been building for decades. Leave aside, too, the question of whether Obama's policies on everything from fossil fuels to the budget to regulation of Wall Street are too centrist (they are). That doesn't explain or excuse why he is such a pushover as a tactician.

In his remaining days in office, Obama can insist until the cows come home that he has been the president who tried to change the tone in Washington, to find areas of common ground and to show that there is more that unites Americans than divides us. But until he finds some inner toughness, the Republicans will continue to stymie his every move and he will be a feeble president at a moment when we need a resolute one.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a senior Fellow at Demos. His new book is Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility.

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