On the Fiscal Cliff, Obama Does What He Can Against 200 Years of Bad Faith

The president’s budget battle is really a fight with 200 years of obstructionism and selfish greed. By Michael Tomasky.

While most liberals were stewing at Barack Obama yesterday for his “capitulation” on tax rates, I confess that I was feeling philosophical about it, and even mildly defensive of him. He is negotiating with madmen, and you can’t negotiate with madmen, because they’re, well, mad. I also spent part of yesterday morning re-reading a little history and reminding myself that rascality like this fiscal-cliff business has been going on since the beginning of the republic. So now I’d like to remind you. It’s always the reactionaries holding up the progressives—and usually, needless to say, it’s been the South holding up the North—and always with the same demagogic and dishonest arguments about a tyrannical central government. We’ll never be rid of these paranoid bloviators, and if no other president could stop them I don’t really see why Obama ought to be able to.

This history of legislative hostage-taking begins with the odious three-fifths compromise, which counted slaves as three-fifths of a person for census purposes. That much I trust you know. What you may not know is that the Southern states, backers of the three-fifths rule in this case in order to get greater representation in the House of Representatives, had opposed a different three-fifths rule earlier, back in the Articles of Confederation days. Then, three-fifths of all slaves were going to be counted for purposes of deciding how much federal tax each state owed.

In other words, the South had said, count slaves as part human for the purposes of taxation? Nevah! Count them as part-human for the purposes of representation, however—well, Yankee, now you’re talking. The South is still doing exactly the same thing today, never paying its freight, its cornpone pols inveighing against the evil government while the Southern states are collectively the most dependent on Washington largesse of all states and regions. The hypocrisy has a long pedigree.

Just three years after the three-fifths compromise we had the so-called Great Compromise of 1790, or the “dinner table bargain” mediated by Jefferson between Hamilton and Madison. Hamilton wanted the federal government to assume the states’ debts and establish public credit. Madison was dead set against it, partly on the grounds that his state of Virginia would be a big loser in any such assumption. This was true, but it also put Madison squarely against progress: against the government protecting investment capitalism, against the industrial revolution itself.

Fortunately, Jefferson brought them together, and equally fortunately, Madison was no John Boehner. He agreed not to support but also not to openly oppose Hamilton’s bill, on the condition that a new nation’s capital were built in some agrarian spot, which turned out to be a certain parcel along the Potomac River between Maryland and Virginia.

This one sort of worked out, because the men involved were actual statesmen, and each side got something meaningful. But usually, American history is the history of positive developments being prevented from happening, or at least perverted, because of hostagelike demands made by the reactionaries.

Thus could California become a state in 1850, and a free one, but only provided that the Northern states would accept a much strengthened Fugitive Slave Act, which non-slave states had tried to challenge (a reactionary Supreme Court ruled with the South in 1842), and provided that the federal government would assume Texas’s crushing debt. Thus did we get Bleeding Kansas, the little precursor to the Civil War. And so on and so on.

Well, you might say, the North got its revenge with the Civil War and Reconstruction. But Southern and agrarian-reactionary elements continued to find ways to bottle up progress well into the 20th century—somehow managing to persuade northerners that they somehow had the right to chair the major congressional committees, where they made sure (except during the Depression) that very little progressive social legislation could see the light of day. This finally changed in the ’60s and ’70s for a few brief shining moments, when most of the legislation that attempts to make ours a more equitable society was passed (and most of which, contrary to right-wing mythology, was quite successful). Then came Ronald Reagan and eventually Newt Gingrich, the interests of the agrarian reactionaries now cleverly fused to those of the corporate titans ready to spend billions in common cause against progress.

What unites all these movements are pretty much the same motives that drive today’s right wing: hatred of government and taxation, constant (and almost always baseless) fear that a central authority is going to rob their liberty, and so on. They are bound together also by a kind of psychology and mindset, a conviction that they represent the good simple folk while their opponents speak for the shifty and the shiftless.

Mitch McConnell may have cut a deal with Joe Biden. But don’t forget, even though he agreed to something, and even though it went through the Senate, now it goes to the House, where all these historic resentments fester and boil. They are not now limited to the South, but the region remains their locus (think of it this way: if those 11 states of the Confederacy somehow weren’t around, we’d obviously be having no such fights).

So I’m feeling for Obama. A number of presidents have had to deal with this kind of behavior, and most haven’t done it very well. If the House will pass today the deal Obama and Joe Biden worked out last night with the Senate—higher tax rates at $400,000 and up, a higher estate tax rate, an extension of unemployment benefits, and a delay in the sequester—he will have done all right. Liberals who think he should just stand tough because he “holds all the cards” aren’t recognizing two important things.

First, he simply doesn’t hold all the cards. The Republicans control the House, and they have enough to block in the Senate. Where I come from, those are cards, and serious ones. Second, they aren’t remembering that his opponents draw on and are part of this nation’s long and often tragic history of people who represent an obsolescing minority viewpoint but do so all the more tenaciously precisely because they secretly know the viewpoint to be both of those things. We will never be rid of them. Obama is having to cross swords with a particularly intense concentration of the type, and right now, he’s doing alright.