On Barack Obama’s debt deal

If nothing else, Barack Obama’s tactics during the debt ceiling crisis have clarified how he plans to run for President next year: not as a candidate of the centre left, but as the reasonable, moderate hostage of a deranged Republican Party – who are, don’t you know, just a little bit off their rockers and more than willing to cut Medicare in order to make a Tea Party point.

Over the past week, the Obama Strategy exploded in a fairly bitter exchange between Salon’s Glen Greenwald who articulates the left’s anger and disappointment with Obama here and Ed Kilgore, whose rejoinder to Greenwald is here. ( Kilgore is best known for the Democratic Strategist website that he co-runs with party researchers Ruy Tuxeira and William Gaston.) If you haven’t time to read the entire Greenwald vs Kilgore smackdown, there is a pretty accurate and amusing summary of it right here by Elias Isquith.

Essentially, what Obama has been engaged in is nothing more than what used to be called ‘triangulation’ back in the 1990s, during the Bill Clinton era. Under the satanic guidance of political strategist Dick Morris, Clinton came to believe that the best way of countering the right was to steal its ground – welfare reform, anyone? – and occupy the centre, thus forcing the Republican leadership rightwards, onto ground where they could be depicted as weirdo ideological extremists. It worked a treat against candidate Bob Dole in 1996.

This time around, by not defending his left flank on the debt ceiling and by not holding out for tax increases to fix the revenue side of the US debt ledger, Obama is planning on blaming all the subsequent spending cuts to Medicare and defence on the Republicans – who just would not agree to tax the rich, even if it meant wrecking the economy, and imposing real hardship.

Clearly, there are risks with this sort of ‘rope a dope’ strategy. Absorbing the punishment, being a hostage in the White House… that kind of leadership can simply look like weakness. The more important message is the one being delivered to his liberal constituency. By refusing to fulfil the promises he waved in front of them on the 2008 campaign trail, Obama is telling his justifiably outraged support base that they have nowhere else to go. And if faced next year with something even worse, such as Michelle Bachman – the White House is gambling that the left/liberal base will climb on board the Obama train again, however grudgingly. Kilgore is not an advocate of this approach, but does recognise its tactical intent:

Obama, for better or worse, has chosen a re-election strategy that is guaranteed to upset progressive writers and activists in the short term and take their support for granted when the deal goes down in 2012. The short-term strategy involves constantly displaying the president’s reasonableness as compared to Republicans for the edification of swing voters, even if it looks like weakness, fecklessness, or even treachery to liberals. It will be followed by a general election stretch-drive message of comparative attacks on Republicans as irresponsible extremists, using the impressions built up in 2009-2011 as cannon fodder for the attacks.

Isquith points to another dimension of the risks involved. Arguably, recent history says that enthusiasm matters to liberals. Sufficient number of left/liberals were turned off by triangulation that they voted for Ralph Nader in 2000, and it cost Al Gore the election. In 2004, despite the hate levels felt towards the Bush administration, insufficient numbers of liberals felt motivated to turn out for John Kerry. In New Zealand in the 2000s, the triangulating, glacially slow pace of change under the Clark administration drove many frustrated left wing voters off to the Greens. Isquith puts it this way:

All of this is to say that Greenwald and others are not wrong when they argue that triangulation is self-defeating because it reduces enthusiasm among activists and voters on the left — but their explanation is hardly the only reasonable one or, frankly, easily proved. What seems to me to be the more fertile ground for this line of argument is essentially the flip-side or the Part B of the triangulation dynamic, which is the assumption that turning the opponent into a boogie-man will gin up the base enough for them to put aside their complaints and come out to vote against someone, if not for the President…[It] appears that the Obama team is so convinced that their man can, almost with a flick of the wrist, get those young minority voters to turn out, that they’re following the same gameplan that Gore and Kerry did. I think this is hubristic, but I guess we’ll see.

At time of writing, Obama was still trying to get the numbers in the lower House to pass the compromise deal on the debt ceiling that was hammered out yesterday. (The Senate looks to be on board, by a whisker.) From here on, it will be a matter of who cops the most blame for the eventual outcome. “The Republicans Made Me Do It” is not an ideal campaign slogan for the 2012 presidential campaign. Yet obviously, today’s compromise and concession package is something Obama will accept to ride out the current storm – and he will be planning on using it against his Republican foes on the campaign trail next year.

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