Thursday, July 14, 2011

Lawrence O’Donnell’s Riveting West Wing Rewrite

Among his sizable talents, our friend Lawrence O’Donnell is a screenwriter. In covering the bizarre and Kafkaesque nature of Washington politics, Lawrence still fondly recalls his stint as a writer for the seminal TV show, The West Wing. Interestingly, on Big Eddie’s show which occupies the time slot once held by Lawrence, a reporter for the D.C. political online newsletter The Hill compared the drama of the “negotiations” behind closed doors to an Aaron Sorkin episode of The West Wing. The President might as well have thrown Roe v. Wade into his $4 trillion “Grand Bargain” enticement to Republicans, he said sarcastically.

But the Last Word belongs to Lawrence. Here is his mesmerizing West Wing synopsis:

Life imitating Art? Should we start referring to President Obama as ‘Jed’? Here’s my problem with O’Donnell’s thesis. Take Lawrence’s lead:

“As the president holds to his bluff that he wants a big deal, a $4 trillion deficit reduction package, the Republican leadership has gone from retreat from $4 trillion to $2 trillion, then from yesterday‘s surrender position outlined by Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell to today‘s total outright confusion about what to do or think next.”

Lawrence makes some big assumptions that, in my view, are unrealistic. The first is that the President’s “Grand Bargain” of a $4 trillion deficit reduction package was nothing but a “bluff” to “trick” the Republicans into a box after weeks of discussions around savage cuts to entitlements and programs near and dear to progressives and Democrats. As the President lectured us, it’s time to “eat our peas” and leave our “sacred cows” at the door, acknowledging that cuts to programs he likes “very much” would be “painful” to him too.

In Lawrence’s fertile screenwriter’s imagination all this was, apparently, a brilliant ruse by the President to piss off restive progressives — his favorite political piñata — “bluff” and “trick” the Republicans into total capitulation by driving a wedge between the country club types (Boehner and McConnell) and the Tea Party crazies (Cantor), while playing to the “independents” who decide elections (unfortunately) by showing them how painfully he’s whacking liberals and progressives and how earnestly he’s “bending over backwards” to meet Republican demands for deep, painful cuts.

Wow. I was almost convinced.

Indeed, the “bluff” and “trick” are confirmed by the Wall Street Journal editorial board, which Lawrence schizophrenically skewers then quotes as prescient and wise when they agree with him. Here’s what the WSJ editorial says, including the qualifier (in italics) Lawrence didn’t quote in full:

“We've never thought the debt ceiling was the best leverage for a showdown over the entitlement state, and now it looks like Mr. Obama is trying to use it as a way to blame the GOP for the lousy economy.

This may have been the President's strategy all along: Take the debt-limit talks behind closed doors, make major spending cuts seem possible in the early days, but then hammer Republicans publicly as the deadline nears for refusing to raise taxes on business and "the rich.”

Well, I ask you, Lawrence: Can you blame them? Of course Rupert Murdoch’s editorial board would ascribe the worst political motives to the President all along, a degree of cynicism and Machiavellianism rarely seen in politics.

I don’t buy it. I actually take the President at his word. It’s absolutely inconceivable to me, whatever we may think of President Obama, that he would take a $4 trillion gamble with seniors, the poor, the unemployed, people on disability, people on fixed incomes and Medicare, simply to assure his re-election and crush the Republican Party.

Would that it were true. If you’ve read this blog, you will know how much I wish this is the narrative that drives the President in his “negotiations” with Republicans. But I take the President at his word when he said he’s willing to risk his presidency to stand by his “Grand Bargain.” He also noted, acidly, behind closed doors that America is not “a banana republic” meaning that a short-term deal kicking the can down the road is unacceptable. Presumably, Mitch McConnell’s cave to do exactly that with a series of votes to raise the debt ceiling is equally unacceptable, though Democrats and others (me too) are urging the President to take it. Does the President’s invitation for the leaders to join him at photo-op on steroids Camp David for weekend meetings (declined) sound like he’s warming to McConnell’s surrender?

To accept Lawrence’s version of events is to believe the President is ten times the actor Ronald Reagan was. When he told us to eat our peas; acting! When he demonstrated anger and frustration with Eric Cantor; acting! When he proposed his $4 trillion “Grand Bargain” with an initial positive response from golfing buddy John Boehner; acting! And when he said, dramatically, that he’s willing to lose his presidency to save his “Grand Bargain;” acting!

It’s a shame the President’s “calm—no, not his calm, his deadly coldness face-to-face with these inexperienced, incompetent political hostage takers,” according to Lawrence’s script, wasn’t more evident when he threw jobs programs under the bus to get weak stimulus tax cuts and a states band-aid deal instead, threw the public option and negotiating in bulk for pharmaceuticals under the bus for a flawed, imperiled health care “reform” bill acceptable to corporate interests, and extended the Bush tax cuts violating a key campaign promise.

But we don’t wish to “relitigate the past” do we?

When President Obama went on vacation he took Ronald Reagan’s biography to read on his down-time. In the face of Republican intransigence “he, the president, got very agitated, said that he had sat there long enough, that Ronald Reagan wouldn‘t sit here like this, and that he‘s reached the point that something‘s got to give,” said Eric Cantor, the petulant juvenile who has unwittingly, and providentially, stood in the way of savage cuts to cherished Democratic programs and entitlements.

I’ve said on this blog and repeat it here that comparisons between President Obama and Harry Truman are absurd. Progressives and liberals are concerned President Obama models his presidency after Ronald Reagan’s. At least stylistically, and maybe even as to intra-party cooperation. This appeals greatly to President Obama. He capitulates so often, in our eyes, because he detests partisan conflict and believes in compromise and breaching differences. Therein lies the path to his re-election. President Obama, rightly or wrongly, sees himself as the tribune of the independent voter. He is the centrist’s centrist, a natural triangulator. Against all odds, he’d like his presidency to be not so much the post-racial presidency as the post-partisan presidency.

That’s all well and good, in normal, rational times. But the President, I believe, fundamentally misunderstood the nature of his opposition in the Republican/Tea Party. He may be catching up now, fast. Hopefully. Here’s Lawrence on America’s “moneyed interests:”

“America‘s moneyed interest who spend millions trying to keep Republicans in charge of the tax code so that they will save billions in taxation in their corporations and their personal fortunes looked on with increasing alarm. Now, those moneyed interests are desperately trying to teach economically illiterate Republicans in Congress that there are worse things that can happen to their wealth than taxation.”

Consider this, Lawrence. Whatever the moneyed elites told Republicans they’re telling President Obama as well. Wall Street has opened its pocketbooks to the President, and with that comes access. Here’s what I think they’re saying, and we’re not part of the conversation, we’re irrelevant: “Mr. President, we know for a fact that the Republican leaders are ready to deal. But they need something in return. They may accept closing tax loopholes and reforming our Tax Code as long as it’s revenue neutral. You must give on Social Security (because we want it privatized), cut Medicare benefits but leave cuts to providers alone, and work with states to slash their Medicaid obligations.”

President Obama is irritated by Eric Cantor, tribune of the Tea Party, because Cantor’s standing in the way of a grand corporatist deal. John Boehner is to Obama what Tip O’Neill was to Reagan — a willing partner (then it was a modest Social Security fix) in a “Grand Bargain” that would fundamentally alter the New Deal and impose deep, savagely painful cuts on the middle class, hitting those who can least afford it. President Obama fully expects John Boehner to rein in Eric Cantor and his caucus, just as he is confident he can deliver most of those 77 votes in the Progressive Caucus that would make a “bargain” possible of passage in the House. Eating our “peas” is Obama’s nod to Reagan’s maxim that “government is the problem.” But if those peas are laced with salmonella because we’ve axed all the government food inspectors, then we’re all dead.

Our hope (liberals and progressives) is that the President bows to current realities and accepts a variation of the McConnell proposal that would, effectively as Senator Bernie Sanders hopes, “kick the can down the road.” It’s not that we “trumpeted” our “distrust of Barack Obama‘s strength of character and his command of presidential power,” Lawrence. Quite the contrary. It’s his policy prescriptions and eagerness to cut the wrong deal that is concerning. And it’s not that we oppose cuts, reasonable reforms, and most of all, making millionaires and billionaires pay their fair share in taxes. It’s that a debt ceiling vote (taken 75 times since JFK) isn’t the proper vehicle for fundamental government reform. Much less behind closed doors and with a hard deadline looming.

That is sheer insanity.

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