Obama and the Liberals: Three Quarters of a Loaf Is Never Enough

Grunwald explains the three genres of lefty delusion: Ivory Soap, Choose Your Own Adventure, and Heighten the Contradictions.

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Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

President Barack Obama delivers remarks about the fiscal cliff on December 31, 2012 in Washington, DC.

I pledged awhile back, after a certain media mogul trashed President Obama for failing to solve global warming, that I would not spend all my time ridiculing the Obama-bashing disillusionment addicts of the left. (Pretty good week for that mogul, huh?)  I mostly kept my word for 18 months, until their whiny response to the fiscal cliff deal inspired me to launch a Twitter tirade about Ivory Soap liberals, Choose Your Own Adventure liberals, Heighten The Contradictions liberals, and progressive utopianism in general. Now that I’m back from vacation, I thought I’d try to explain in more than 140 characters what I meant. Tomorrow I’ll try to explain why it’s important, and not just for the next round of budget talks.

First, a few words on the substance of the deal. Republicans wanted dramatic spending cuts, on discretionary programs as well as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. They got none of that. Obama wanted to preserve the Bush tax cuts for the poor and middle class, and restore Clinton-era rates on income above $250,000 a year. He got almost all of that; the Bush tax cuts remained in place up to $450,000 a year. Obama also wanted to extend tax credits for the working poor, the wind industry, and college students, plus benefits for the unemployed. He got all that, too. And the mini-deal spared the economy from the draconian austerity measures that would have kicked in if we had gone over the cliff. On the other hand, some of those measures were merely delayed for two months, so the Washington brinksmanship isn’t over. And the mini-deal did not raise the debt ceiling, which means that Republican hostage-takers can once again threaten to force the U.S. government into default if they don’t get what they want during the next round of negotiations.

(MORE: The Next Cliff: Another Round of Debt Brinkmanship Looms)

Still, I’d say it’s a good deal. Liberals have (correctly) argued that protecting the recovery—and protecting the vulnerable—is more important than reducing the deficit at a time when the economy still needs support. This deal was about avoiding the anti-stimulus of the cliff and the austerity demands of Republicans. Liberals have also (correctly) argued that the modern GOP is a uniquely intransigent and irresponsible party, all too willing to sabotage the economy for ideological and political reasons, driven by a reactionary combination of Tea Party principles and fear of Tea Party primary challenges. This deal managed to extract real compromises from those uncompromising Republicans, who do, after all, control the House of Representatives, along with enough Senate seats to filibuster Democratic legislation. The deal also exposed serious divisions inside the GOP, forcing House Speaker John Boehner to defy a majority of his own caucus.

Yet liberals were outraged. (Not all liberals. Michael Tomasky wisely advised his fellow lefties to stop whining.) The complaints basically fell into three categories:

Ivory Soap Liberalism: Ironically, it was that aforementioned media mogul, during his presidential campaign, who once sighed that liberals would never be satisfied even if he were 99.44% pure, like Ivory Soap. Obama has always made it clear that he’s a left-leaning pragmatist, not a progressive ideologue, but Ivory Soap has been a recurring theme during his first term, the idea that three quarters of a loaf is never enough, the widespread fantasy that the president could get 100% of what liberals wanted if only he weren’t such a weak negotiator, or so eager to please Beltway pundits, or so gleeful about selling out his base. Sure, he achieved the dream of universal health insurance, but why did he give up on the public option? Sure, he won the right for gays to serve openly in the military, but why did it take him two years? Why only an $800 billion stimulus? Why no immigration reform, or cap-and-trade, or gun control? He’s the leader of the free world!

Well, the leader of the free world doesn’t get a magic wand. And legislation that doesn’t pass both houses of Congress doesn’t make change. Yes, Obama just won another election, but so did the Republicans who control the House of Representatives, and their elections had consequences, too. Many liberals raged during the fiscal cliff talks that Obama was about to agree to massive entitlement cuts; he didn’t, so they raged that he had preserved the tax cuts on income between $250,000 and $450,000, and failed to remove the debt ceiling as a bargaining chip. Sorry, but in an era of divided government, you can’t get everything you want. If Obama hadn’t made any concessions at all, we would’ve gone over the cliff.

(SPECIAL: 2012 Person of the Year: Barack Obama, the President)

Fine, the lefties say. If we had gone over the cliff, Obama would’ve had even more leverage. The economy wouldn’t have crashed, the market wouldn’t have freaked, and the political backlash against Republicans would’ve been intense.

Uh, maybe. Which leads me to the next genre of lefty delusion…

Choose Your Own Adventure Liberalism: The funny thing about the grouches of the left, such Debbie Downers when it comes to What Is, is their inevitable optimism about the road not taken; they’re veritable Panglosses when it comes to What Could Have Been. It reminds me of those choose-your-own-adventure books. Turn to page 75, die of thirst, oh, scratch that, turn to page 67 instead. Eventually, you find the treasure.

The real world doesn’t work like that. It’s true that if we had gone over the cliff, taxes would’ve gone up across the board, and there would’ve been pressure to lower them. It doesn’t follow that therefore Republicans would’ve given Obama all he wanted. The House would’ve passed a bill restoring all the Bush tax cuts; maybe the Senate would’ve passed a bill restoring them on income up to $250,000; the final compromise probably would’ve been around, oh, $450,000. And there’s no reason to think the Republicans would’ve folded on the debt ceiling in exchange for nothing. They would’ve demanded the kind of spending cuts that liberals despise.

Of course, anything’s possible in Hypothetical Land. Maybe Obama could’ve gotten a better deal on the other side of the cliff. Maybe markets would’ve shrugged off the specter of Washington paralysis. Maybe the economy could’ve withstood weeks or months of austerity and dysfunction. Maybe. I’m just saying there’s no way to be sure, and Obama would’ve risked his presidency (and the well-being of millions of his constituents) if he took the plunge. It’s never entirely predictable how these things will play out, which is what makes the uncharacteristic confidence of the liberals so bizarre.

Even more bizarre, perhaps, is the underlying rationale for that confidence. Obama’s critics say that if he had just held the line, if he had just articulated his case, if he had just forced the Republicans to show their true obstructionist colors, the public would’ve turned on the GOP and the president would’ve gotten his way. It’s the same story with gun control; the public is on his side, so if he had just crusaded for it, he could have trumped the inconvenient truth that gun-loving Republicans control the House. This is a subgenre of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Liberalism that I call…

(MORE: Viewpoint: Where Republicans Are Going Wrong on the Fiscal Cliff)

Heighten The Contradictions Liberalism: In Rick Perlstein’s brilliant book Nixonland, he chronicled how many sixties radicals actually welcomed Nixon’s election as a way to “heighten the contradictions,” a Marxist phrase suggesting that capitalist and imperialist overreach would galvanize the public towards proletarian revolution. Modern liberals have embraced a softer-edge version of this utopian dream, the belief that if Republicans are forced to follow through on their extremist threats, the American people will finally recognize what extremists they are, so—here the logic gets even more strained—they will be forced to cave, because…uh…2014?

Liberals often argue (again, correctly) that the mainstream media is incapable of covering the brazen reality-defiance of the modern Republican Party, that the he-said-she-said conventions of the political press make false equivalence inevitable. I’ve made the same arguments. So what makes them think that if we had careened off the cliff, the MSM would’ve made it clear that the GOP was at fault? It’s true that pre-cliff polls suggested the public was inclined to blame Republicans. But polls in early 2009 suggested it would be politically suicidal for Republicans to try to obstruct a popular new president during an economic emergency; they did anyway, and it helped them regain the House in 2010. And even if the national polls were right about the cliff, so what? Most House Republicans represent districts where standing up to Obama is way more popular than cutting responsible deals.

The larger point is that Republicans are going to continue to behave like Republicans, and it’s folly to expect the disapproval of economic elites or ordinary Americans to change that. They’ve spent four years pushing for the policies that created double-dip recessions in Great Britain and Spain; they brought the U.S. to the brink of default in 2011, causing a downgrade of our credit rating. Their irresponsibility helped reelect Obama, but they still represent about, oh, 47% of the country. They still have to worry about primary challenges from the right if they cut deals with the guy they’ve described as a socialist tyrant. Maybe a cliff dive or a default would help heighten the contradictions, but they could also trigger an economic meltdown, and presidents are supposed to try to avoid those. A disaster for which the irresponsible opposition is blamed would still be a disaster.

The cliff deal certainly wasn’t optimal. The next deal won’t be, either. Obama will have to make more concessions to the Republican hostage-takers so that we don’t default on our obligations or slide back into recession. But while reasonable people will always be able to disagree about the terms of the deal, perfection will not be an alternative. And as I’ll discuss tomorrow, the progressive utopians who have confused imperfection with betrayal have misunderstood the entire Obama era.

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