The post-New Year’s lull is over and we’re heading into the Season of Confrontation in Washington.
President Obama will give his Second Inaugural Address on January 21st, and eight days later his State of the Union address. That will give him two opportunities to lay out the general themes and specific policies he’ll try to carry out in his second term.
Then the clock starts ticking faster. We’ll probably hit the debt limit by mid-February. Automatic spending cuts from the 2011 “sequester” kick in March 1st. The Continuing Budget Resolution that keeps the government funded expires March 27th. Unless Congress passes something and the president signs it, we’ll face, respectively, a default, meat-cleaver spending cuts, and a government shutdown within six weeks.
I’ve long thought that wouldn’t happen, mistakenly assuming Congress and the president are basically reasonable people, like the readers of this blog. They may be reasonable, even calculating, individuals, but the forces they represent aren’t—an increasingly frightened and polarized electorate that’s out of touch with economic and fiscal realities.
That severely limits the maneuvering room of the principal actors and may make them impotent to deal with the huge challenges that threaten to overwhelm them—like the seemingly all-powerful generals and president in the war room in Stanley Kubrick’s classic “Dr. Strangelove.”
Each of the four principal leaders in Congress has severe constraints on his or her actions:
- House Speaker John Boehner has repeatedly been unable to deliver his caucus on any kind of compromise. He couldn’t even get his own “Plan B” to the House floor, and was forced to swallow a Senate fiscal cliff deal that garnered only one third of House Republicans. He also has to watch his back as other GOP House leaders plot to get his job.
- House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is effective at getting the Democratic caucus in line, but they are decidedly a minority. She’s also laid down a marker that still more taxes will have to be part of a new budget deal, which is anathema to Republicans.
- Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has been consigned to irrelevance by his own actions, from refusing to submit a real budget in the Senate for four years to being so unreliable a negotiator that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell went over his head to Vice-President Joe Biden to cut a deal.
- Then there’s McConnell, the key figure of the four, because he can actually deliver lots of Republican votes in the Senate. He’s also shown he can negotiate with Democrats—his back channel approach to Biden paid off in a compromise fix to the fiscal cliff.
But that deal may be all he can do for some time. Many Republican primary voters will be upset that McConnell agreed to any tax hikes at all with the hated President Obama. And on three Sunday talk shows last week he drew a line in the sand, saying repeatedly that tax hikes are “over.” It will be extremely difficult for him to walk that back, especially with a possible primary challenge in 2014.
In fact the only one who doesn’t face reelection or have aspirations for higher office is the president himself. That’s why he can sit back and let the government quit paying its bills or shut down services while the electorate stews at Congressional Republicans.
Ultimately Republicans will be forced to cave as they did in the mid-1990s when President Bill Clinton called Newt Gingrich’s bluff. But if they believe their own rhetoric too much they could find themselves set up by the wily president to take a big fall. And the president may very well snatch victory from the jaws of defeat yet again.
Also read: How Obama Plans to Crush the GOP