Tuesday, December 14, 2010

For a Liberal, these are strange days indeed

It's not as if these days weren't predicted; expected, even. After the mid-term elections in November gave the Republicans a majority in the House and an even better bargaining position in the Senate this January, it was obvious that President Obama would have to compromise on his positions to insure that Republicans didn't hold up Congress and shut down government until they got their way. What wasn't so obvious was that Republicans were willing to hold the middle-class hostage until their demands for tax cuts for the wealthy were met.

Three weeks ago House Republicans blocked a bill that would have extended unemployment insurance benefits expiring at the end of November and since then they have blocked the bill each time it's been brought up for a vote. Their reason? The Republican party made it clear that they would block all legislation in the lame-duck session until the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, set to expire at the end of the year, were extended.

Last week, Republicans in the Senate were successful in also blocking a Democratic plan to extend the Bush tax cuts to the middle-class. The middle-class tax cuts had been passed by the Democrats in the House just a few days before, prompting Republican Rep. John Boehner to call the vote to extend tax cuts to the middle-class and not to the wealthiest of Americans, 'chicken crap.'

Republicans have not only made good on their promise in blocking the extension of tax cuts for the middle-class: essentially raising taxes on 98 percent of Americans next month and blocking the extension of unemployment benefits: leaving up to two million out-of-work people without help by the end of the year, Republicans have also succeeded in holding up other legislation including the new START treaty, the Dream Act, and the Defense Authorization bill which in addition to outlining military funding includes the effective repeal of the discriminatory policy known as 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell.'

Obviously, the Dream Act and the repeal of DADT are not causes championed by most Republicans. Even though these measures would strengthen our military and finally plant the flag declaring this country's claim to the moral high ground, most Republicans are sure to stand in the way of these bills passing because, frankly, most Republicans don't really seem to like gays or brown people. But that Republicans would decide to hold up the new START treaty, an agreement with Russia to reduce and control nuclear arms, in order to scare Democrats into voting for upper-class tax cuts should tell you right away that if the G.O.P. is willing to undermine national security for the sake of fattening rich people's wallets, they'll do just about anything.

Republican obstructionist and bullying tactics have forced President Obama to choose his battles. With time running out on the middle-class and the unemployed, the President has decided to negotiate with Rep. John Boehner and Senator Mitch McConnell and propose a plan of extending unemployment benefits for thirteen months in exchange for twenty-four more months of Bush tax cuts, plus a two percent payroll tax reduction, plus an estate tax reduction, plus a tax exemption for inherited income up to $5 million dollars.       

In all, as most Democrats and the liberal and progressive base have pointed out in various ways including an eight and a half hour filibuster-esque speech by Vermont's Independent Senator Bernie Sanders, this deal between President Obama and the G.O.P. is not exactly a fair or reasonable trade.

The left objects to the plan's over-generous concessions for the wealthy and are angry with the President for breaking his pledge to eliminate tax cuts for the rich, while the right objects to the expense of unemployment benefits, but both the Democrats and the Republicans agree that the plan means a huge, unaffordable increase in the national debt.

The tax deal, estimated to cost $858 billion dollars, is $71 billion more than the heavily criticized 2009 stimulus and at a time when many in Washington had expected to roll up their sleeves and get to work at reducing the deficit, President Obama and Republican leaders are now urging Congress to pass this package under the threat that not passing it will further damage the fragile economy.

President Obama has put himself in the position of negotiator-in-chief between the two political parties: a place he believed he could work to bring red state and blue state America together. But after two years of extending his hand to the Republican party, it seems President Obama has yet to notice that Republicans, at the very least, want nothing to do with him; at most, are eager to smack his hand away and spit in his eye. Republicans consider him an obstacle: avoid if possible, go over if necessary, remove eventually. If President Obama has a strategy in play; that he believes it's best to keep his enemies closer, he's not letting on. If he is willing to fight the Republicans or big business or Wall Street, he isn't showing it. And because of this, President Obama stands to lose the faith and support of his base.

But when facing a hostage crisis, what would his base expect the president to do?

Yes, Republicans are better than Democrats at standing their ground even if Republican's ground will be proven in time to be on the wrong side of history and yes, their base loves them for it. Some may see President Obama's unfavorable compromise with Republicans as capitulation to the enemy and a sign of weakness, but it is important to remember that showing empathy is not cowardice. Choosing to save those in distress rather than fighting the bad guy does not make the good guy weak. And yes, it is possible that, rather than always fighting, compromise with the opposition can lead to cooperation. It may not be sweet and it may not be easy, but being the good guy rarely is. All you can do is stay tough and live to fight another day.

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