Imaginary Enemy

FILE - This March 20, 2012 file photo shows House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and President Barack Obama walk down the steps
FILE - This March 20, 2012 file photo shows House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and President Barack Obama walk down the steps of the Capitol in Washington. The people of an intensely divided nation just created a government that looks the same way as the one before. The only hope for progress on creating jobs and everything else would be if Obama and Republicans in Congress could find some incentive to compromise. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

One of the many indelible images from the 2012 campaign was Clint Eastwood talking to an imaginary Obama. It became a flashpoint for late night comedians and Internet memes, but it actually was a perfect snapshot of the modern Republican Party.

The president has high approval ratings. His proposals have majority support. The Republicans are unpopular and so are their policies. Since they cannot win a matchup with the actual president, they have to imagine a man they can beat.

The problem has become more acute in recent weeks. Take Peggy Noonan's latest column. In it, she basically called the president a big meanie, and someone who does not negotiate in good faith.

The problem is that, once again, this is an imaginary Obama. By every indication, President Obama has tried to negotiate grand bargain deficit deals with Speaker Boehner. And twice, Boehner, not the president, walked away from the negotiating table.

"Is Boehner walking away -- again? In July 2011, at the height of the White House-GOP talks over the debt-ceiling debate, House Speaker John Boehner walked away from the negotiations. His side argued that President Obama and his team moved the goalposts; others have pointed out that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor told Boehner that he and the GOP caucus couldn't support any more counteroffers. But the bottom line is that Boehner walked away from the grand-bargain talks, and the White House let him walk. Now history seems to be repeating itself. After Boehner compromised last Friday to raise tax rates on income above $1 million, and after Obama compromised even further by raising his income threshold to $400,000 and putting Social Security cuts on the table, Boehner and House Republicans retreated to focus on "Plan B" -- a one-sided effort to raise rates above $1 million that Democrats NOW adamantly oppose. The House vote on the measure will take place today."
-- Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Brooke Brower for FirstRead on

Real Obama reached across the aisle twice to the GOP, and was twice rebuffed. But Noonan can't admit that Republicans are being unreasonable, so "Imaginary Obama" is brought in. Noonan can then rail against this stubborn figure while ignoring the reality that her own party has twice agreed to terrible deals, despite much better offers from the president. Much easier to hammer the empty chair than to face the music.

But that is not the only imaginary Obama that appears regularly in GOP columns and talking points. Another favorite is that the president has no interest in cutting entitlements, and thus turning his back on the debt crisis. Joe Scarborough demonstrated this trope in his latest column.

Joe Scarborough writes:

"Obama's approach on crippling entitlement growth is more evidence that the man who piled up $6 trillion in debt over one term has no interest in curbing Washington's reckless spending."

This is once again a figment of the GOP's imagination. The real Obama trimmed Medicare payments in order to fund his health care plan. Republicans spent the last four years attacking Obama over these cuts, so it's somewhat surprising to hear them now say they don't exist.

Obama also offered to trim entitlement programs, much to the chagrin of Democrats, during both the first and second budget talks with Speaker Boehner. Matt Bai completely eviscerates Scarborough's argument.

"The fact is that Mr. Obama, during his 'grand bargain' negotiations with the House speaker, John A. Boehner, in the summer of 2011, had already signed off on painful cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, even if he never once mentioned that during his reelection campaign. So he knew there was a deal to be had that would preserve -- and perhaps even strengthen -- these programs without destroying them... None of this is theoretical or subjective. It's spelled out clearly in the confidential offers that the two sides exchanged at the time and that I obtained while writing about the negotiations last spring."

Don't expect "Imaginary Obama" to go away anytime soon. The Republican party is spent, with no new ideas and no desire to change. After their most recent gathering, the GOP decided that its not their policies, but just a PR problem that keeps them from winning.

"We don't need a new pair of shoes; we just need to shine our shoes," said West Virginia national committeewoman Melody Potter.

This creates a grim scenario for Republicans; they are facing a popular president with popular ideas. It would take real introspection and courage to change and compromise. Which is why the Republicans will continue to create "Imaginary Obama." It's just a whole lot easier than dealing with their reality.