How Obama Can Win the Politics of the Debt Ceiling and Still Lose

Obama made the better argument Monday night, but that doesn't mean he's going to come out on top once the battle over the deficit winds down

Obama made the better argument Monday night, but that doesn't mean he's going to come out on top once the battle over the deficit winds down
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John Boehner is no Bobby Jindal. The Louisiana governor established the gold standard for a laughably inept response to a presidential address in 2009, and I intend no disservice to Boehner's earnest bid for the title Monday night when I say he came up short. True, his cadences were sing-songy, and his direct, manly eye contact wasn't with us viewers, but rather with a teleprompter positioned a tad too far from the camera lens, and his rote rehearsal of disingenuous, oft-told, and almost content-free Republican talking points carried very little conviction. But he wasn't sufficiently Eddie Haskell-like for this to have posed a serious threat to Jindal's primacy, let alone for ending any hopes of a national career.

Of course, his career may be in jeopardy anyway. He is a speaker who has patently lost control of his own conference, and that doesn't augur well for his long-term prospects even if his party retains control of the House. And he has his own Uriah Heep -- well, that might not be fair to Uriah Heep; Eric Cantor lacks Heep's finesse -- maneuvering, unofficially if not exactly covertly, to replace him. Which may well have been one aspect, although only one, of the speaker's difficulty delivering his speech Monday night. It's public knowledge that he had been prepared to accept a deal with the president, but was rebuffed by the most militant faction in his caucus. As a consequence, his air of sorrowful indignation was somewhat less than convincing; he couldn't have sounded nearly so indignant when he saw fit to say yes. So he ended up sounding like a hostage reading a list of his captors' demands for a video about to be released to Al Jazeera.

And the president? Well, he was immeasurably superior to the speaker, and he brought his accustomed strengths to the table. He was reasonable, forceful, cogent, and well-armed with facts that supported his case. He had much the better of the argument. No great feat, seeing as how Boehner barely offered any argument at all. But those weaknesses with which we have also become familiar over the last couple of years were fully in evidence as well: he was calm, measured, and willing to compromise, when expressions of reproach, even of ire, would not have been out of place. On those occasions he was scathing -- and there were a few -- his barbs were almost entirely subtextual. Only listeners familiar with the ins and outs of the last few weeks' negotiations, and only those who have made a practice of parsing forensic political discourse, would have noticed the ways in which he alluded to Boehner's current fecklessness, or the Republicans' hypocrisy and reckless, indefensible willingness to endanger the country for a perceived political advantage. As in the 2008 presidential campaign and many occasions since, one felt the urge to yell at the television screen: "Get mad, for Christ's sake! They deserve it! You have the right!"

But getting mad isn't Obama's way. No doubt being the calmest person in the room has served him well all his life, but I'm not at all convinced it's serving him well now.

And when it comes to content, most Democrats, while cheering the president on, must also feel deep frustration. He is defending against the worst depredations threatened by the Republicans, and to programs they have always opposed, and there's no question that his heart's in the right place. But he's conceding so much! The story is told that when Clement Attlee returned from a visit to Washington to meet with President Truman, he addressed his cabinet about what he had observed. I'm paraphrasing, but this, in essence, is what he said:  "The American political system is rather like ours in many ways. They have their Republican Party, which is quite similar to our Conservative Party. And they have their Democratic Party, which is quite similar our Conservative Party."

Obama's willingness to meet the Republicans not merely halfway, but three-fourths of the way, is characteristic of modern-day Democratic presidents, but none the more comforting for that.  Polls show Democrats actually winning almost every policy argument when the issues are presented individually, but there's a strange kind of pusillanimity at work when Democrats offer an overarching philosophy of governance. The basic questions never get confronted. To put it another way, there's the Republican Party, which is much like the British Conservative Party, and there's the Democratic Party, which is much like the Republican Party. A somewhat less reactionary wing of the Republican Party. Bill Clinton once complained, "They're forcing me to govern like an Eisenhower Republican!" Well, I'm not sure he was forced, but it's an accurate description of his presidency, and, to a certain extent, of Barack Obama's too.

Still, this disconcerting agreeableness on the part of the Democrats at least exposes Republican intransigence for what it is: A bullying and cavalier game of political chicken.

We will find out in the next week or so whether I'm right in saying Obama has won this round, as he has won almost every previous round when the two parties have gone head-to-head on policy. But history shows, and the last off-year election confirms, that winning every round doesn't necessarily guarantee victory in the election to follow. When it comes to voting, Americans are practical; practical, I am tempted to say, to a fault. Right now, it's clear that George W. Bush gets popular blame for getting us into our current economic mess, and the Republicans get popular blame for being uncooperative and politically motivated when it comes to getting us out of it. But in November of 2012, voters may look at prevailing economic conditions and say, "It doesn't matter whose fault it is, this clearly isn't working. It's time to try something else."

Winning the argument isn't nearly so important as putting people back to work. Which may well be why the Republicans are pursuing such destructive tactics. As the Republican leader in the Senate dared to say out loud, defeating President Obama is the party's first priority. Solving the nation's problems apparently comes a distant second.

Image credit: Yuri Gripas/Reuters