By the time you read this, the long awaited and much feared sequestration may have already begun. That means you and your loved ones are huddled together in your sequester bunker, eating tinned food and listening to airplanes fall out of the sky. Or it could mean that you aren't noticing anything, because all the hyped-up panic over the sequestration has obscured the fact that the cuts that have been triggered are actually scheduled to take place on a very long timeline. Or it could mean anything else, between the two poles of certain doom and life more or less going on in a familiar fashion. (For many of you, the unemployment crisis may mean life's familiar routine is already a soul-deadening slog into an uncertain future. Sorry, folks, everyone decided that we have to fix the 20-year budget trajectory, for reasons beyond all comprehension, before we get to your immediate concerns.)
But rather than fret over whether some last-minute deal will save us from certain doom or-maybe-not-doom, let's take some time to discuss another type of sequestration -- specifically, the way a tribe of centrist pundits sequestered their own intellectual capacities, fretting over a surreal definition of "leadership."
Let's defy the traditional "first do a lot of pointless mystification" conventions of the political media and instead do that very rare thing where we come right to the point. The reason we are pushed the the brink of this fiscal crisis is the same reason we've been pushed to the brink of all the others. There is a clear impasse between the Obama administration (along with his Democratic allies) and the congressional GOP. The impasse is this: the Obama administration would like to grapple with structural budget deficits with a balanced approach that includes spending cuts, reforms (that is to say cuts) to earned benefit programs like Social Security and Medicare, and raising additional revenue. The congressional GOP counters that they will not raise revenue under any circumstance, and they will not compromise.
So, you have one side (the administration) that will -- perhaps with some regret! -- countenance doing things that conflict with their party's orthodoxy (cuts to entitlement programs), and another side (the GOP) that basically says that the Democrats need to wholly embrace their party's orthodoxy, or there is no deal.
You can obviously see why this would be a non-starter. And as we've seen, this has been fueling all of the non-starting that's been done over the past few years. In 2011, Obama used the occasion of the debt ceiling to invite a discussion on a "grand bargain." He offered a balanced approach of cuts, entitlement reforms, and revenues. The GOP would not countenance revenues. This led the the supercommittee being formed out of the same Budget Control Act that created sequestration. The intent of that law was to create an environment where a balanced approach might be possible, with the sequestration dangling overhead as an incentive to act. One side offered a balanced approach of cuts, entitlement reforms, and revenues. The GOP would not countenance revenues.
A certain amount of revenues finally came in the form of the fiscal cliff deal. The GOP would not countenance revenues, but in this case, both the hard-date sunsetting of the Bush-era tax rates, as well as the results of the 2012 election, gave Obama all the leverage in the debate. Obama got revenues as a result, but charitably, he opted against his professed goal to reset the Clinton-era tax rates on income earners making $250,000 a year and above, shifting the line up to $400,000 a year. (If you're truly looking for the moment Obama "moved the goalposts," there you go.)
And that set up the current standoff, in which Obama has offered a balanced approach of cuts, entitlement reforms, and revenues. In an interesting twist, the "revenue ask" the White House wants is the same one that the GOP's presidential candidate ran on in 2012 -- revenues through tax reform and loophole closures, offset by spending cuts. Despite the fact that they were being granted the opportunity to institute Mitt Romney's own plan for revenues, the GOP would not countenance them. And so, here we are.
It's useful to simply state the cause of the impasse -- Obama's openness to a deal, versus the GOP's insistent intransigence -- in order to highlight the dementia of a certain breed of "middle-of-the-road" pundits who have badly lost the thread of what's been going on in these debates. And while neither the policy positions of the two sides are above debate, nor the territories staked out by pundits of a more partisan bent are beyond critique, it's these woeful self-styled centrists who are consistently pouring out page after page of abject nonsense.
You shall know them by their trail of dreck. Typically, these "centrists" take the position that Obama's balanced approach is the one that they favor. Some state this explicitly, some merely imply it, and there are a goodly helping of others who are so chronically uninformed on the issues that they don't even know that they are essentially showing fealty to the administration's policy prescriptions. In similar fashion, these pundits make it clear that they lament, in some way, shape, or form, the GOP's unwillingness to compromise, and recognize that they are the side that have gone to the bunkers in this debate, refusing to emerge.
But what follows from there, for these maroons, is a worldview that literally presents as a symptom of mercury poisoning. To their minds, the reason that the GOP has turned into a gang of dedicated, febrile refuseniks is because Obama has not shown sufficient "leadership." By which they mean that he has not unleashed upon the world words of such unrelenting sentimental force, or committed himself to some awesome display of Shatnerian histrionics, to soften his enemies' hearts and spur them forth from their trenches to join in some sort of Up With People musical number about bipartisan deficit reduction.
Greg Sargent refers to this brand of magical thinking as "the centrist dodge":
Self-styled “centrist” columnists have a perennial problem on their hands. They have built reputations by calling for middle-of-the-road solutions to our problems. Yet they can’t acknowledge that Obama and Democrats are the ones who are offering solutions that are genuinely centrist, because that would constitute “taking sides.” This would imperil their “brand,” which rests heavily on transcending partisanship, and on their ongoing insistence that the future depends on following a middle ground between the parties.
And as Sargent points out, this affliction constantly mutates, fending off whatever reality-based antibiotics might treat the disease. These dodgy centrists have, over time, shifted from garment-rending over a third party that would simply prescribe the same exact things Obama's been suggesting in the belief that removing the brand-name "Democratic Party" might somehow trick the Republicans into a compromise (which to my mind, is grossly unfair to the GOP!), to mewling erroneously that Obama must not have a plan (because if he did then a compromise would be a fait accompli, to the notion that Obama has to do further compromising -- in the direction leading away from their own preferences.
But there's been one odd constant throughout the evolution, and that's the surrealistic take on "leadership" -- this notion that GOP's intransigence can be waylaid by a phone call or a golf outing or a gesture or a speech or a melodramatic howl from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Or Obama yells, "Expecto patronus!" and the dementors scatter to the wind, leaving nothing but a safe space for everyone to cut a deficit deal. "Ten points ... for everybody!" cheers Tom Friedman, before catching a chartered jet to Davos.
These pundits are scrawling these admonitions pretty much on a daily basis, but for a recent representative example, we will pick on David Ignatius, who this week penned something that I can only imagine was written under the influence of laudanum.
We have a political system that is the equivalent of a drunk driver. The primary culprits are the House Republicans. They are so intoxicated with their own ideology that they are ready to drive the nation’s car off the road. I don’t know if the sequestration that’s set to begin Friday will produce a little crisis or a big one; the sad fact is that the Republicans don’t know, either, yet they’re still willing to put the country at risk to make a political point.
I don't know, exactly, how there can be primary and secondary culprits to a drunk driving incident -- maybe the thousands of innocent people killed by drunk drivers each year aren't showing sufficient leadership? Nevertheless, Ignatius obviously has a clear-eyed understanding of the fact that there's only one side in the debate that's consumed with naked ideological brinksmanship. But, naturally, the dumb "leadership" pivot is coming, like the stench after a fart:
I’m no fan of the way President Obama has handled the fiscal crisis. As I’ve written often, he needs to provide the presidential leadership that guides Congress and the country toward fiscal stability. In my analogy, he should take the steering wheel firmly in hand and drive the car toward the destination where most maps show we need to be heading: namely, a balanced program of cuts in Social Security and Medicare and modest increases in revenue.
Of course, this raises the question -- by what practical means does Obama "take the steering wheel?" If you're Bob Woodward, you suggest just suspending the Constitution wholesale, but he is pretty unique in his demented ravings. This is about all Ignatius can offer that discussion:
So how can we get these incapacitated drivers to stop before they do any more damage? If this were really a case of chronic drinkers, the answer would be an intervention to keep them off the road. In politics, the public gets to intervene through elections. We just had one, and the Republicans lost, big time. Yet it didn’t seem to make much difference. The House Republicans are still grabbing for the wheel, and the car is rumbling toward trouble.
Obama tries everything to gain control -- except a clear, firm presidential statement that speaks to everyone onboard, those who voted for him and those who didn’t -- that could get the country where it needs to go.
The short version is: "Yeah, man, elections. Hoo, boy, I dunno what to do. Something, though. You know ... some stuff?" Meanwhile, as always, I'll point out that the "firm, clear statement" has long been sitting on the White House's website.
(Rather bizarrely, Ignatius, in this same piece, contends, "Much as I would criticize Obama, it’s wrong to say that both sides are equally to blame for what’s about to hit us," even as he does just that. If he was sincere in his belief, the correct response isn't to send the piece to his editors to be published, it's to type "CTRL-A, DELETE" and then check into a rehab clinic.)
But again, Ignatius' natterings are just one example in a wide-ranging library of deficit leadership slash-fic, and it's not even the dumbest one, by a long shot. The winner of that distinction, by my reckoning, is Thomas Friedman's "The Day Our Leaders Got Unstuck" column in The New York Times, in which he wrote down some elaborate fantasia of a possible America where Obama ... did ... something -- it's never clear what that was -- that filled John Boehner with inspiration and led to everyone hugging. "What’s sad," laments Friedman, "is how much this is a fantasy and how easily -- with just a little political will -- it could be a reality."
That's one of the more galling things about this genre of punditry -- the underlying belief that bridging this vast ideological entrenchment is somehow easy. They literally believe that Obama could just make this happen at will. That somehow, there is a box inside the Oval Office marked "In Case of Lycanthropic Contumacy, Break Glass," and Obama is somehow unwilling to walk across the room, seize the Infinity Gauntlet laying therein, and wield it unto glory.
Of course, just by suggesting that there is a MacGuffin inside a readily available box, I've managed to transcend the imagination of nearly every pundit in the "leadership" surrealism game. That's the other galling thing about this genre of commentary -- despite the fact that it's deemed to be as easy as pie to "do the thing" that causes "leadership" to happen, none of these typists offer much in the way of suggestion. Hence, Ignatius' "just do some drunk driving intervention stuff" metaphor. And Ron Fournier's "conjure the spirits by reading this op-ed from the Green Bay Press-Gazette (that already summarizes every speech Obama's already made on the matter) aloud" suggestion.
Thomas Friedman, bless him, got very creative, and suggested that the ancient mysteries of deficit arbitrage were contained within the movie "Tin Cup," and Obama should by all means get that from Netflix, put it on the Blu-ray, let its wisdom overwhelm him, and then rise from his couch to lead both parties to the promised land of a long-term budget trajectory that gets two thumbs up from the Congressional Budget Office. That is, at the very least, something. But the common thread running through all of these examples is that fact that the best these centrist hacks have to offer are ideas that are fundamentally unserious.
Meanwhile, the same set of thinkers, locked perpetually within their Chamber of Magical Thinking, positively rise up with revulsion every time Obama attempts to make his case to the American people. Political science is very clear on the limitations of grandiose gestures and oratory made in the bully pulpit. Persuasion, they hold, occurs when political actors "facilitate change in favorable environments." So that's why Obama seeks to draw on the support of the American people, by putting himself out there, consistently and persistently, as a case-maker. (Contemporaneous polls indicate that he is succeeding.)
Now, I'll allow that the current political tactics the Obama administration -- darkly warning of every petty inconvenience that the sequester will bring unto the nation in a matter of days -- is too clever by half. In the first place, it equates some of the truly dire things that may, in short order, befall desperately poor people with picayune spin about long lines at airports. And on more than a few occasions, the administration has stretched the definition of what constitutes a sequester threat. For example, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's claim that there are "literally teachers now who are getting pink slips" was a tall tale, exposed as such by Lyndsey Layton and Karen Tumulty.
But for the centrists, there's just simply something unseemly about talking to the American people. They see it as "campaigning" -- literally considered a gauche thing to do. To their mind, it's a waste of time to engage with the people. Rather, Obama must focus his intense "leadership" rays upon and within the Beltway petri dish. That's where the Truly Important People reside. "Why oh why won't Obama open a line of communication with John Boehner," mewl the garment-renders at Politico, paragraphs before they reveal that "after the fiscal cliff agreement, Boehner explicitly promised his conference that he would limit his private negotiations with the president." Congratulations, Politico readers: you were duped again!
But the most awful aspect of this brand of pamphleteering, is that the "leadership" surrealists genuinely make it harder for anyone to come to a deal. There is no magic spell that Obama can cast. Until we have a president with bona fide midichlorians in his blood, there will never be the occasion where these deals can be brokered by using the Force (a fact that Obama himself alluded to Friday, in a joke that unfortunately made a mish-mash of two sci-fi franchises, possible costing him his surfeit of nerdcore cred). So, these calls for leadership always lead to the last practical, and acceptable, avenue -- a tacit request from centrists to keep giving ground in negotiations.
And if the GOP can get those concessions that cheaply, and with the blessing of every mini-David Broder within 20 miles of the 202 area code, it would make no sense for them to stop asking for more, right up until every vestige of the "Paul Ryan Roadmap" is the law of the land. Naturally, the fact that the centrists' demands on Obama is in direct conflict with the fact that Obama is already calling for the very set of policies for which the centrists all profess an affection doesn't matter in the least to them. For these pundits, the intractable intellectual contradiction at the heart of their Great Works is considered to be a sign of their higher level of thinking.
But look, what can we say about a group of contemporary opinion writers, who clearly have a set of policies they prefer, clearly have a forum in which they're allowed to advocate for those preferences, and who nevertheless cannot bring themselves to do that very thing? We can say that we need no further lectures about "leadership" from these witless hacks who can't even lead themselves.
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