When Barack Obama began his quest for the presidency more than three years ago, admirers and many opponents alike conceded he was smart, tough and articulate. Well, we are left with one out of three.
Certainly the recent well-manufactured debt ceiling crisis (yes, we do manufacture something), demonstrated no semblance of toughness or any measure of political savvy. The president spoke of "balance" to settle the matter, a balance that included "enhanced revenues." But Obama and many of his congressional allies readily abandoned their feeble attempts to raise taxes on millionaires ("like myself," he said) and to eliminate the "tax breaks" that pervade our American corporate culture. Some resolve; some toughness.
One critic, with an eye to history, suggested that Obama declare himself a moderate Republican and seek the nomination of both parties just as in 1820 when James Monroe ran as the only candidate. Then we might replay the "Era of Good Feelings" -- which was anything but -- with Obama synthesizing Herbert Hoover, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. What political genius!
Who knew? Was the electorate so charmed by those engines of hope and change that it ignored Obama's clear signals of a desperate yearning for some imagined middle? Soon after the election, the appointments of Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers, apostles of deregulation, with impressive credentials as enablers for the demolition of a 60-year record of economic prosperity and the government's role in ensuring that prosperity, should have sounded the fire bell. And where was the attention toward Obama's campaign call for more arms, treasure and troops for Afghanistan? To say nothing of his promise to break the stranglehold of health insurance companies on the nation's health delivery system -- companies that now are the greatest beneficiaries of Obama's legislation.
The president's vaunted resolve and toughness in the political turmoil surrounding the national debt disappeared into a cloud. On July 24, Obama again called for a "balanced" solution, meaning he would accede to Republican demands for spending cuts -- including for cherished entitlement programs -- while Congress would close some of the more egregious tax loopholes and breaks, and provide a modest raising of taxes for the wealthy. Four days later, balance sailed into the ash can, with taxes not to be raised again by the president until he petulantly mentioned them after signing the "compromise" bill -- a bill perhaps best anticipated by Stephen Colbert who said, "The Republicans say 'gimme, gimme, gimme,' and the Democrats say 'take it, take it, take it -- just don't hurt me.'"
Taxes are the real third rail in American public life. The American Revolution slogan "no taxation without representation," often misunderstood in rendering our history, now is so distorted and twisted as to virtually paralyze our public life. In 1962, John F. Kennedy's commissioner of internal revenue distributed the usual cover letter on tax forms, congratulating Americans' willingness to declare and pay their taxes. Then, quoting Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, he reminded Americans that "taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society," a writing etched in the IRS building in Washington.
Can we imagine any IRS commissioner quoting Holmes today? Grover Norquist undoubtedly would demand a "pledge" from quivering politicians and public officials never to utter it again, while the Texas educational authorities would ban any textbook mentioning Holmes. Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker wondered about Republicans and their pledges. "Didn't they get enough scouting when they were children?" Apparently not.
Since the Proposition 13 campaign in California in the 1970s launched a 40-year-old ideological crusade, Republicans consistently have advocated tax cuts, tax breaks and no taxes for their allies. The ever-defensive Democrats rarely use the word "taxes"; instead they speak of "revenue enhancers." Obama soon will assume his campaign mode, crank up his populist rhetoric, and aggressively demand to end tax loopholes and make the wealthy pay a fair share. When? During his next campaign, of course.
Divided government is neither new nor necessarily debilitating in the United States. In the 1950s, the immensely popular Dwight Eisenhower shared power for six years with Democrats in Congress. Eisenhower, of course, had Texans Sam Rayburn and Lyndon B. Johnson, men skilled and knowledgeable about the legislative process, and just as eager as himself to make government work. During his presidency, Johnson regularly collaborated with Republican Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois, a man who never apologized for his conservative beliefs, to successfully set the nation on a bipartisan path toward civil and voting rights legislation, and the landmark of Medicare. Reagan and House Speaker Thomas O'Neill, D-Mass., were both very strong leaders, yet they worked reasonably well together. Reagan never had to apologize for his civility and friendship with the speaker or vice versa.
Unlike Obama, these presidents never confronted such lavishly financed opposition as the "Tea Party," or a congressional leader such as Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who works only with a narrow political calculus. McConnell has made no secret for more than three years that his goal is to deny Obama another term. In the recent debt imbroglio, he quickly acknowledged that default was no option for it would harm the Republican Party -- but where was the national interest?
With the raising of the debt ceiling, the oratorical passion that for weeks gusted through the congressional cave of the winds quickly subsided, and both sides retreated to hollow and unconvincing victory statements. The president appeared a bit shamefaced and embarrassed by the whole affair. But not others. The Wall Street Journal, our paragon of small government, one strictly bounded by revenues and spending limits, wasted no time in resuming hostilities against the president on another front, as it chastised him for not leading the Libya adventure, saying we cannot rely on NATO -- our "Keystone Allies." "No one else" but the U.S., the Journal contended in an editorial Aug. 1, "has the means or the will to see a war through to its end." Yes, Libya! The debt ceiling measure was akin to the Christmas truce of 1914.
Our problems with governance lie far beyond the character of Obama, or with the Lilliputians who run Congress. Our "leaders" will not lead; worse yet, they refuse to honestly confront the nation's interest or needs.
The level of our political "discourse" is dictated by historical amnesia and a post-factual rendering of historical reality. The fulsome adulation of Reagan fails to note that he reversed more than six decades of American dominance as the world's leading creditor nation to that of the world's leading debtor nation. Where in all this newfound national concern about our debt is there any recognition of George W. Bush's disposal of a surplus, his administration's laissez-faire acceptance of misdeeds in the banking community, the invocation of a "too big to fail" doctrine to rescue failing banks and the squandering of resources on dubious wars of choice?
Such revelations and reversals of policy are far beyond the capacity of our dysfunctional political system, one greased with a tsunami of special-interest money in the guise of campaign contributions that effectively serve as a conduit for legalized bribery. We are cooked -- and to a well-done turn.
Stanley Kutler is the author of "The Wars of Watergate" and other writings.