Politics isn't a child's game. It's a bloodsport. People's lives are at stake. To save people's lives, we have to win. The game is played at many levels, from grassroots activism to local school board politics to Capitol Hill. All of them matter. Over the next couple of months, one battle will take center stage -- the battle over the budget. A prominent Democrat once stated: "The budget is a profoundly moral document." That statement referred to the last truly titanic budget battle, the government shutdown of the mid-1990s, one in which a Democratic president stood firm, and a chastened Republican majority backed down. This time, the principal combatants will be President Barack Obama and Speaker John Boehner. There is only one acceptable outcome. President Obama must utterly defeat Speaker Boehner, and in the process he must break the House Republican caucus.
In 2011 Washington witnessed the clash over the debt ceiling. It did not end well. John Boehner said at the time: "When you look at this final agreement that we came to with the white House, I got 98 percent of what I wanted. I'm pretty happy."
Of course, that agreement set up the sequester. Remember the sequester? It's the indiscriminate slashing of government spending that the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office estimates is costing up to 1.6 million jobs. Yeah, that. This time, the end result must be something that makes Boehner unhappy.
Republicans are building toward a huge fight this fall, built around next year's budget as well as the need to raise the debt ceiling. The level of obstruction is so unprecedented as to have reached the level of sabotage, according to Norm Ornstein of the conservative American Enterprise Institute. Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post laments that this unprecedented level of Republican obstruction is the "new normal."
The Republican saboteurs in the House of Representatives intend to use the budget process to demand even steeper cuts, as well as to strip out from the budget all funds dedicated to implementing Obamacare. Here are just a few of the examples of what the House Republicans propose to cut (see this chart for more) from next year's budget:
1) Cut 34 percent from the current budget of the Environmental Protection Agency and repeal the President's recently promulgated regulations on greenhouse gases
2) Cut 50 percent from the budget of the National Endowment of the Arts and Humanities
3) Cut 27 percent from the budget of Fish and Wildlife Services
4) Cut 16 percent for education grants for low-income students
5) Cut 13 percent from the budget for the Labor Department
In other words, we must either gut progressive priorities in the budget and put a full stop to Obamacare, or the Republicans will simply not pass any budget at all. Oh, and they'll have more demands a few weeks later when the debt ceiling needs to be raised, most likely having to do with cuts to Medicare.
Republicans seem to think that they won the last election. They seem to think they won in a landslide and have full control of both ends of Capitol Hill. They seem to think -- with good reason perhaps given the debacle over the last debt ceiling fight -- that they just need to hang tough and President Obama will blink. Again.
This cannot happen.
Republicans actually lost the 2012 elections, they lost the presidency, they lost seats in the Senate, and they got fewer total votes than did Democrats in elections for the House of Representatives -- where they managed to win a majority of seats anyway thanks in part to gerrymandering.
The time has come for President Obama to remind them of these facts. He gave an excellent speech on Wednesday, one in which he laid out his economic plans and called on Republicans to offer their own. Obama also said he would stand firm against Republican obstructionists and extremists:
They'll talk about government assistance for the poor, despite the fact that they've already cut early education for vulnerable kids, they've already cut insurance for people who've lost their jobs through no fault of their own. Or they'll bring up "Obamacare" -- this is tried and true -- despite the fact that our businesses have created nearly twice as many jobs in this recovery as businesses had at the same point in the last recovery, when there was no "Obamacare." [...]
But with this endless parade of distractions and political posturing and phony scandals, Washington's taken its eye off the ball. And I'm here to say this needs to stop. [...]
Now, in this effort, I will look to work with Republicans as well as Democrats wherever I can. And I -- I sincerely believe that there are members of both parties who understand this moment, understand what's at stake, and I will welcome ideas from anybody across the political spectrum. But I will not allow gridlock or inaction or willful indifference to get in our way. [...]
[T]here are others who will dismiss every idea I put forward -- (laughter) -- either because they're playing to their most strident supporters or, in some cases, because sincerely they have a fundamentally different vision for America [...]
Repealing "Obamacare" and cutting spending is not an economic plan. It's not. If you're serious about a balanced long-term fiscal plan that replaces the mindless cuts currently in place, or if you're interested in tax reform that closes corporate loopholes and gives working families a better deal, I'm ready to work. (Applause.) But you should know that I will not accept deals that don't meet the basic test of strengthening the prospects of hardworking families.
Those words are a good start. Now we need action. The president has to not just say he'll stand firm, he has to do it. Over the past four and a half years he has been often willing to compromise, to incorporate some Republican ideas into his policies on the stimulus, on health care, and many other areas -- even after winning the kind of landslide in 2008 that hadn't been seen in a generation. Recent polling shows that the American people know that Republicans are the ones responsible for the obstruction taking place on Capitol Hill. Perhaps Obama's willingness to compromise in the past will mean that -- if he really does draw a line in the sand now -- the American people will stand with him, seeing that he really had no choice because of the other side's extremism.
And the president really does have no choice. The party that loses an election cannot be allowed to set the country's agenda, to block the implementation of laws previously passed, and to put its budget blueprint into law. If it can, then elections mean nothing.
I know that what I'm about to do is a cliche, a cliche that went meta so long ago it was in a movie centered on the new-fangled wonder that was AOL. But I'm going to do it anyway. Here's how President Obama should deal with John Boehner and his crew's attempt to blackmail this country in order to get what it wants:
Now, President Obama is not going to do what Michael Corleone did to the corrupt, bribe-seeking Sen. Pat Geary (if you haven't seen Godfather II, I'll leave it to your imagination). President Obama is not a criminal. Nor is John Boehner seeking a bribe. I assume you all know that. But the metaphor works. It's about when Michael says: "My offer is this. Nothing."
President Obama must tell Speaker Boehner that he will not get he wants. Period. Obama won the election, and the American people are with him. If Boehner wants to shut down the government, then he must shut down the government. I believe that in such a scenario, given the polling and the president's history of being reasonable and willing to compromise, the American people will put the blame squarely on Boehner and the House Republicans.
The majority of House Republicans will not bend or yield no matter the public pressure, either because they are in safe districts, or because they are absolutely rigid ideologues. For some, it's both. So the only way this impasse can end is for John Boehner to do what he has already done four times this year (the fiscal cliff deal, Hurricane Sandy relief, the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization, and a historical sites acquisition bill). He must put together a majority made up mostly of Democrats on the budget and, when the time comes, raising the debt ceiling.
Even John Feehery, the aide to then-Speaker Dennis Hastert who came up with the idea that bills should not pass the House without a majority of the majority, says that it's time for Boehner to ditch that so-called "Hastert Rule." Feehery also reminds us that Speaker Tip O'Neill, after Ronald Reagan won the White House in 1980, said that Presidents should have an opportunity to implement their agenda. So much for following the "O'Neill Rule."
If Speaker Boehner passes a budget out of the House and then authorizes a hike in the debt ceiling (remember, that just means paying bills the government has already racked up, not creating new ones), his speakership may well come to an end. Republicans may look to overthrow him in favor of someone even more rigid and right-wing.
Given that possibility, maybe Boehner and Nancy Pelosi would come to an agreement that would allow Boehner to remain the titular speaker at the head of a coalition of Democrats and a few dozen not-insane Republicans, in return of course for passing what would amount to a Democratic budget, as well as a clean debt ceiling bill and anything else the new "majority" supported. Since House Democrats remain in the minority, this is something I could live with. Rep. Pelosi strikes me as the kind of person committed enough to substance to let someone else hold the gavel while she wields the real power and does what is right for the American people.
But none of this can happen unless Barack Obama does his part. He is the key. If he stands firm, as did Bill Clinton when Newt Gingrich tried to blackmail the country not that long ago, then the priorities and morals of the American people have got a chance.
It's all up to the president.