Obama’s Challenge: don’t cave into the Republicans. Ever.

“He (Carter) was both the most anti-party Democrat in a century and the most Republican of Democratic presidents in his policy views since Grover Cleveland. He fled from the New Deal/Great Society philosophy and embraced a number of conservative ideas deregulation of industry after industry, tax cuts on the upper brackets, privatization. when Reagan took office in 1981, Carter had softened the ground.

“Professor Burns wrote of Carter:

“‘His Administration attested not so much to political or administrative incompetence as to a collapse of political strategy stemming largely from a failure of intellectual leadership … He wanted to be a teaching president … a preaching president… Beyond platitudes about honesty and morality, however, and specific policies the president was interested in at the moment, it was not clear that this transcending leadership was for. Tragically for Carter’s presidency, the one vehicle that might have helped shape and support a coherent program-the Democratic Party-was the one he most neglected.’

“Fatal Triangles

“Bill Clinton is remembered as a far more successful president than Jimmy Carter. The economy thrived on his watch (though some of the prosperity was built on unsustainable bubbles). His foreign policy was competent and occasionally inspired, as in the Camp David Accords and in the Kosovo settlement. He presided over fiscal discipline and reform of government agencies. His appointments were generally first-rate. But he failed to defend or advance his party’s principles, leaving voters skeptical of government and reinforcing Republican ideology. His signature was ‘triangulation’-splitting the difference, simulating leadership often at the expense of his own party.

“Like Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Johnson, great presidents are sometimes defined by great enemies-and do not shrink from engaging them. In this respect, one key reason why Clinton could not win enactment of his health program was his failure to make good use of the near-perfect enemy that history had offered him-the health insurance industry. It was an era when the line ‘Goddamn HMO’ in a popular movie shortly afterward would elicit spontaneous audience boos. Instead, Clinton hoped that the industry could be co-opted by his plan to run his new universal insurance system through private insurance companies. He also hoped he could enlist other large corporations with the prospect of capping their own premium costs.

“But in the end, both the entire insurance industry and all large employers were ideologically united against giving government the power to establish a new program of social insurance that might bond voters to the Democratic Party. When Clinton tried compromise, business followed the Republicans’ advice to oppose the program ‘sight unseen,’ in the phrase of strategist William Kristol. Clinton failed to pursue the one strategy that might have worked-defining a campaign of the American people against the selfish private interests.

“By the same token, Clinton’s success in transforming the welfare system shows how a leader can sometimes lose by winning. Clinton’s original plan was one part tough love and one part expanded resources. Able long-term welfare recipients would be compelled to work, but additional resources for job training, wage subsidy, and child care, as well as waivers in hard-ship cases, would make welfare reform an improvement lives of the poor, not just a cruel reduction in benefits. Republican majority in Congress was more interested in the rolls. Clinton vetoed the proposed legislation twice finally signing it based on only token improvements. His secretary of health and human services, Donna Shalala, urg to veto the bill. Three of his subcabinet officials-the de of his reform plan-resigned in protest, a principled act unknown in recent times.

“For Democrats as well as Republicans, the proof of became the dramatic shrinkage of the welfare rolls, and more troubling question of how many of the poor wer or worse off. By embracing an essentially Republican ve welfare reform, Clinton reinforced conservative dogma t welfare state was more of a problem than a solution. Ex his expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, he colluded in a net reduction of resources going to the needy, and pa an opportunity to truly convert welfare into work supp worsening income share of the bottom fifth of the population the years since Clinton and the Republicans ended ‘w we know it’ is in part the result of former welfare recipients pushed into a low-wage labor market with few offsetting s Clinton made a calculated decision to ‘take welfare off the table as an issue that was sometimes used against Democrats terms of the effect on the prevailing ideology and the treatment of the working poor, the issue went directly from the t the bag of Republican victories.

“All transformative reforms involve struggles. Forces resisted reform are, by definition, immensely powerful. entails mobilizing the less powerful, sometimes lending presidential authority to a brave minority, as Lincoln and Roosevelt and sometimes building support among the people almost from scratch. The great presidents knew how to use words to inspire— but they also knew how to play hardball. Sometimes pr get things backward. In Clinton’s case, the ‘interest group’ that he defeated was welfare recipients. The one that defeated him was the health insurance industry.

“More than a quarter century ago, in his magisterial political science study Leadership, James MacGregor Burns thoroughly demolished the idea that leadership is merely the art of compromise. Rather, the act of compromise is what you do, as necessary, in the endgame. But if you split the difference with your opponents going in, you are finished. ”Leaders,’ Burns wrote, ‘whatever their professions of harmony, do not shun conflicts; they confront it, exploit it, ultimately embody it.'”
Kuttner, R. Obama’s Challenge, Chapter 2: How Transformative Presidents Lead, pages 57-60. Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, Vermont. ISBN 978-1-60358-079-6 Chelsea Green Publishing

Yes, it’s true: You can’t reason with Republicans, so we should all stop trying. Yes, keep an eye on them and try to keep them out of trouble, but for God’s sake, stop trying to reason with them or appeal to their better nature. It’s just a big waste of time and makes one look stupid.

And don’t kid yourself that Republicans ever have good ideas or there is such a thing an even remotely good or workable Republican idea. The last thirty-two years have buried that idea once and for all. I mean, it seems like T. Roosevelt had the last good Republican ideas and that was far too long ago.

This entry was posted in politics. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Obama’s Challenge: don’t cave into the Republicans. Ever.

  1. Gerald McGrew says:

    James Macgregor Burns is one of the most important and under-studied political historians in the last sixty years. His insights on how to work the levers of the American political system and the critical importance of party renewal for the achievement of progressive political power have been all too often ignored by the left. He’s ninety years old, so someone will soon have to pick up his torch. If Kuttner (one of the best commentators on the economy who posts something once per week or more, along with Dean Baker and William Grider) can help carry that torch into the future, it would be a great service to us all.

Comments are closed.