The Republican leadership successfully used the bluff made famous in the movie Blazing Saddles to get President Obama to support a massive tax cut for the wealthiest two percent of taxpayers.
In the movie, Sheriff Bart (played by Cleavon Little) responds to a mob that is about to lynch him by pointing his six-shooter at his head and threatening to shoot. The gag, of course, is that the mob falls for the bluff -- proving their staggering idiocy. The Republicans were locked into four disastrous legislative positions -- in favor of a massive tax cut for the wealthiest two percent, continuing don't ask, don't tell (DADT), opposing the DREAM Act giving a path to citizenship for children of undocumented immigrants who served in the U.S. armed services or graduated from college, and providing health care for the 9/11 first responders.
The Republican's Blazing Saddles bluff was to claim that if the Democrats did not give them the tax cuts for the wealthy the Republicans would kill everything, particularly tax cuts for the other 98 percent of taxpayers. The chance that the Republicans would commit political suicide by voting to kill tax cuts for 98 percent of American taxpayers was equal to the chance that the sheriff would shoot himself -- zero.
President Clinton called the Republicans on their Blazing Saddles bluff to "shut down the government." That threat lasted exactly one day. Shutting the Post Office down for a day turned out to be politically disastrous for Republicans. Killing tax cuts for 98 percent of American taxpayers would have been political suicide for Republicans. Pause to consider what a challenger in the next primary would do to any Republican that voted to kill the tax cuts. I guarantee that every Republican member of Congress had recurrent nightmares about voting to kill tax cuts for 98 percent of taxpayers.
The three other bills compounded the Republican Party's problem. While many individual Republican candidates have gained by demonizing minorities, the cost to the overall Party has been high and it is growing. Demonizing Latinos and gays is substantively bad for the nation and bad overall for the Republican Party. That was not enough to move many Republican Senators to vote for the DREAM Act (the problem again is primaries -- being "soft on illegal immigrants" would be a severe liability for many incumbent Republicans). There were, however, still a few Republican moderates who would suffer in both their primary and general elections if they voted against the DREAM Act and repealing DADT -- and the Democrats needed to pick up fewer than a handful of Republican votes in the Senate.
The Republican leadership was desperate to avoid a vote in which most Republican Senators voted against the Dream Act and repealing DADT. If they killed the bills they'd enrage the fastest growing ethnic group in America (plus gays as a lagniappe). That would be an electoral disaster for the Republican Party. Worse, repealing DADT and paying to treat the 9/11 first responders were extremely popular with most Americans -- and were supported by many Republican Senators. That meant that the bills would be passed if the Republicans allowed a vote.
In sum, the Republican leadership's Blazing Saddles bluff had locked the Party and many incumbent senators in a nightmare scenario that would have forced them to capitulate unless they bluffed Obama. If Obama called their bluff they would have had to fold and the Democrats would get the tax cuts for 98 percent of American taxpayers, block the tax cuts for the wealthiest two percent, pass the repeal of DADT with Republican support, and pass the payment of the 9/11 first responders' health costs with overwhelming Republican support.
Note that not a single Republican Senator agreed to vote to repeal DADT, support the DREAM Act, or pass the 9/11 bill in exchange for Obama agreeing to support the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. The Republican senators that voted for these bills did so because they supported the bills and/or believed that it was good politics to vote for the bills -- there was no bipartisan compromise package deal. (Obama promised to end Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy and could have ended them by laughing at the Blazing Saddles bluff. To mix my metaphors, he folded on a winning hand.)
Like Clinton, had Obama called the Republican's bluff he also would have prevented future Republican bluffs. Instead, the Republican leadership has renewed its Blazing Saddles bluff. They are now claiming that if the Democrats do not agree to degrade Social Security benefits, etc., they will vote against expanding the federal debt ceiling. The Republicans are not going to kill the bill expanding the debt ceiling because they know that it would cause the U.S. to default on its debt, which would cause a national financial crisis, and a global crisis. Everyone in the world would know that the Republican Party caused the crisis. That is why neither party will kill the bill. A legislator may vote against the debt resolution when he knows that his "nay" vote will not kill the resolution. Senator Obama did so. Senator Obama would have never voted against the resolution if doing so would have killed the expansion of the debt ceiling and led to a default -- that would have been political suicide.
Obama's experience as a senator should have led him to recognize that the Republican threat to not expand the debt ceiling was a Blazing Saddles bluff. Instead, he is treating it as if it were real. The Republican leadership was able to use its tax bluff to obtain its greatest legislative priority -- tax cuts measured in the trillions of dollars for the wealthiest two percent. Consider why that was the Republican Party's top legislative priority. The Republican Party's leadership knows that this tax cut bonanza for the wealthy will produce a flood of contributions to their party. Obama gave the Republican Party's leadership their dream -- something the American people strongly opposed and they had no legislative chance of obtaining absent Obama falling for their Blazing Saddles bluff. As we predicted, this has led the Republican leadership to repeat the bluff using the debt resolution.
The president likes to watch movies and Blazing Saddles is a classic, so there is a painless way to ensure that he calls the Republicans' bluff. Indeed, why not invite the Republican leadership to join you for a bipartisan showing of the movie. As a bonus, Black Bart's bluff offers an opportunity to discuss racism. As someone born in Detroit I have to give a plug for Mongo, played by Detroit Lions great, Alex Karras. Your Republican guests will love Mongo's response to excessive government regulation (unless they love horses). Your guests probably won't get the part about Hedley Lamarr's version of the Republican pledges, so they may cheer when Hedley exhorts his band of economic thieves: "Now go do, that Voodoo; that you do, so well!"
Bill Black is an associate professor of economics and law at the University of Missouri - Kansas City. He is a white-collar criminologist, a former senior financial regulator, and the author of The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One. He still has the scar tissue from blowing the whistle on powerful members of Congress.