Republicans Best President Obama on Tax Cuts, Appropriations

Republicans stuck together and forced the president to sign the tax-cut extension. Eric Alterman on the stalled Democratic agenda and Obama's worst flaw.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP Photo

Conservative Republicans beat down the liberal Democrats on Thursday night’s tax vote the same way they win everything: by sticking together and refusing to budge, even an inch… on anything. By caving early (and often), Obama managed to distance himself from this particular shellacking and even give some pundits the impression he had won something.

The New York Times’ Michael D. Shear looks at the passage of Thursday night’s tax deal as a sign that, potentially, President Obama might be “on the verge of one of his most productive months in office.” It’s a weird conclusion, (though to be fair, he poses it as a question). After all, as Brian Beutler observes in writing on the same topic, “Harry Reid's plan to get the federal government funded through the end of the fiscal year went up in flames, burning months and months of work by Senate appropriators and their staffs.”

Any remotely sensible or sensitive person who watched Jon Stewart on Thursday night with the sick 9/11 workers who were asked to compare the priority of ensuring that fewer than 5 percent of America’s most financially fortunate folks be given their $133 billion (or so) in tax breaks would have had a hard time not wanting to just punch these guys in the nose. And yet no matter how popular Democrats’ positions are according to polls, the Republicans won this one the way they win everything: by sticking together and refusing to budge, even an inch. (Even Mike Huckabee called for the passage of the bill.) But even when they hold the overwhelmingly popular position with pollsters, as they do on both 9/11 victims and taxes, Democrats still cannot manage to make it stick in Congress.

No word on whether the 9/11 bill will now finally pass, but the Democrats do look poised for a win on repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. The so-called Dream Act looks a lot less rosy and will likely be held hostage by a threatened filibuster unless Democrats agree to drop it in order to move on to DADT repeal. START ratification is touch-and-go, too, since, being a treaty, it requires a two-thirds majority to pass.

Both sides will argue over who “ won.” But from a tactical standpoint, even with likely DADT passage, it looks like the Republicans ate the Democrats’ lunch, for a change—offering a swift kick in the ass as they did—owing to the fact that they are going to have to do all this all over again when the far more conservative Congress returns in January. At that point, Democrats will need Republican cooperation to raise the debt-ceiling limit. And to get it, they will have to give away what little remains of the gains that the poor and the middle class have made in the federal budget process in recent years. Democrats will again, say, as Obama did, “What choice do we have,” but to give in to the hostage-taking Republicans? And the Republicans, who apparently do not care what is said or written about them in the “lamestream” media will continue to deliver for the campaign contributors until the time comes for these same contributors to fund yet another campaign designed to confuse the already ill-informed American public. It’s quite a racket.

In the meantime, there are more than a few oddities about the tax vote. Republicans were so eager to screw up the Democrats’ work on the omnibus budget bill that they ended up killing $8 billion worth of earmarks, many of which were written by the same people who voted to kill them. (That sounds like an opportunity for an attack ad to me.) Second, while the White House wants to spin it as a win—and in terms of the recovery, it may be, though in a profoundly inefficient and unnecessarily costly fashion, the lopsided benefits for the wealthy demonstrate just how far Obama has moved—whether forcibly or willingly, it’s hard to say—from the priorities of his presidential campaign. Nobody is talking about closing Gitmo. Afghanistan is looking worse every day. Nothing is being done to combat global warming; indeed, the Environmental Protection Agency is reverting to Bush-era rules on emissions and the like. The costly prize of the first term, health-care reform, does not look likely to survive a court challenge and Wall Street is partying like it’s 2007. Despite the passage of financial-regulation legislation, and when things go wrong, the president blames the liberals. Come to think of it, it sounds an awful lot like the Bush years.

This is a man of remarkable self-discipline to be sure, but self-discipline for what?

Is this what we can expect for the next two, possibly six years? I think so. I’ve given up trying to figure out Obama not because I think there’s no there there, but because the “there” keeps changing. Think about it. The man masters every environment he enters because he so effectively reflects back its values. The Hawaiian/Indonesian raised African American was a great Harvard Law Review editor, a community organizer, a liberal Democratic senator and a (semi) insurgent presidential candidate. But that was all then and this is now. And despite all that talk of remaking the system, it turns out his primary goal was to make it work. And he can make it work with liberals running things or with conservatives. Whatever. The point is to retain the illusion of control at all times; keeping his head while Democrats all around are losing theirs. This is a man of remarkable self-discipline to be sure, but self-discipline for what? After two years of his presidency, we still don’t know.

Eric Alterman is a distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College, a senior fellow of the Center for American Progress and media columnist for The Nation. His newest book, Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama, is available for preorder.