Outfoxing Barack Obama: The Canniness of John Boehner and Mitch McConnell

Conservatives are in a foul mood — and with considerable justification. Given the emergence of the Tea Party Movement in 2009 and the Republican landslide in the 2010 midterm elections — an event that gave the Republican Party greater strength at the state and local level than it had enjoyed at any time since 1928 — there was reason to suppose that the party might retake the Senate and capture the Presidency in 2012. For a variety of reasons — some having to do with demography and the changing character of the electorate, some having to do with a poor choice of candidates for the Senatorial contests, and some having to do with the character of the campaign that Mitt Romney ran — we fell short, and there are consequences, unpleasant to all of us, that we have had to suffer as a result.

DukakisTank.jpgIt would, however, be a mistake to suppose that all is lost and that we must bow to the inevitable. If you were to read Barack Obama’s speeches, you would suppose that he is riding high. If you look carefully at what is happening, he is actually losing ground.

Consider the attack he mounted on the citizen’s right to bear arms and the pathetic backpedaling he is now engaged in. The photograph of Obama shooting skeet is about as persuasive as that of Dukakis with a helmet on in a tank.

Not long ago, Obama was forced to back off from his intention of nominating Susan Rice to succeed Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. And now, Chuck Hagel, the man he wants to make Secretary of Defense, has turned out to be a moron and a public embarrassment, which leaves the President caught between a rock and a hard place. If he drops the nomination, he displays weakness. If he shoves it through, it merely reinforces the suspicion, already widely held, that the administration’s “B” team is a pretty sorry lot.

To this, we can add that it looks as if the courts are going to slap down the President’s attempt to bypass the Senate and deprive it of its responsibility to advise and consent with regard to crucial executive appointments. This will have the effect of rendering null and void many of the more obnoxious decisions made by the regulatory agencies during Obama’s first term.

It also looks as if the administration is now eager to back off from the HHS mandate concerning contraception and the morning-after abortion pill — at least as that mandate affects religiously affiliated institutions such as Catholic charities and the Catholic hospitals. It is clear that Obama and his advisers fear that the courts will rule that the mandate is a breach of the First Amendment’s prohibition against federal interference with the free exercise of religion.

And there is more. Many of the states are choosing to exercise their right not to set up the medical insurance exchanges called for by Obamacare. The unions have discovered that the bill will harm their members, and they want it amended. And it is clear that the penalty or “tax,” if that is what you think it is, that Obamacare imposes on those who refuse to play ball and get medical insurance is insufficient as a deterrent. In other words, Obamacare is already collapsing under its own weight. If you think that Americans were angry in 2009 and 2010, just wait.

Mitch-McConnell.jpgA great many conservatives denounced the tax deal worked out a few weeks back between Mitch McConnell and Joe Biden. I would agree that it was not ideal. The tax increase inflicted on those who make over $450,000 a year was punitive and unjust. But, in my opinion, John Boehner and McConnell outfoxed Obama at the time. If you remember, the tax cuts introduced some years ago by George W. Bush were due to expire and, if nothing was done, everyone’s taxes were going to go up by a lot. Now, however, as Ralph Benko points out in an exceedingly intelligent analysis in Forbes, the tax cuts are permanent for everyone other than the small cohort who took the hit. Given the weakness of the Republican bargaining position at the end of 2012, that is quite an accomplishment:

In retrospect, at the Battle at Fiscal Cliff, Boehner took President Obama to the cleaners. He did it suavely, without histrionics. While Obama churlishly, and in a politically amateurish manner, publicly strutted about having forced the Republicans to raise tax rates on “the wealthiest Americans” Boehner, quietly, was pocketing his winnings.

Dazzled by Obama’s Ozymandias-scale sneer most liberals failed to notice that Boehner quietly made 99% of the Bush tax cuts permanent. As Boehner himself dryly observed, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board member Steve Moore, “Who would have ever guessed that we could make 99% of the Bush tax cuts permanent? When we had a Republican House and Senate and a Republican in the White House, we couldn’t get that. And so, not bad.”

“Not bad” is a resounding understatement. Dealt a weak hand, Boehner managed to 99% outfox, on tax policy, a president who had the massive apparatus of the executive branch, the Senate majority, and a left-leaning national elite media whooping it up for a whopping tax increase. Even more impressively, Boehner pulled it off with steady nerves while under heavy pressure from the anti-spending hawks in his own caucus.

Boehner, deftly, also dramatically raised the threshold, on which Obama had campaigned, at which the modest 3.6% rate increase kicked in. Yet his biggest win may have been in making the Alternative Minimum Tax patch permanent. This changes the baseline with profoundly positive implications for future tax reform and economic growth.

John-Boehner.jpgThere is more. As Benko points out, Boehner managed more recently to put off the debt-ceiling battle until May. This he calls a “double whammy.” First, “by structuring the law to allow new borrowing only to the extent that obligations ‘outstanding on May 19, 2013, exceed the face amount of such obligations outstanding on the date of the enactment of this Act,’ Boehner effectively instituted a spending freeze. This, in the face of Obama’s relentless demand for even more spending, is a victory for anti-profligacy hawks.”

Second, Benko argues, Boehner managed to “re-sequence” the fight. The victory that the liberals are celebrating will, he believes, turn out to be a defeat. “What,” he asks, “are the implications of putting the Sequester fight before the debt ceiling fight?” And in answering the question, he quotes Steve Moore of The Wall Street Journal:

The Republicans’ stronger card, Mr. Boehner believes, will be the automatic spending sequester trigger that trims all discretionary programs—defense and domestic. It now appears that the president made a severe political miscalculation when he came up with the sequester idea in 2011.

As Mr. Boehner tells the story: Mr. Obama was sure Republicans would call for ending the sequester—the other “cliff”—because it included deep defense cuts. But Republicans never raised the issue. “It wasn’t until literally last week [columnist’s note: just before the deadline] that the White House brought up replacing the sequester,” Mr. Boehner says. ‘They said, ‘We can’t have the sequester.’ They were always counting on us to bring this to the table.”

Mr. Boehner says he has significant Republican support, including GOP defense hawks, on his side for letting the sequester do its work. “I got that in my back pocket,” the speaker says. He is counting on the president’s liberal base putting pressure on him when cherished domestic programs face the sequester’s sharp knife. Republican willingness to support the sequester, Mr. Boehner says, is “as much leverage as we’re going to get.”

If Moore and Benko are right, John Boehner and the members of his caucus may not want to see the cuts scheduled for defense take place, but they are less worried about these than the Democrats will be about the cuts in domestic spending. Think about it. The Democrats won the election, and they have been triumphalist ever since. How are they going to explain to their base the fact that they cannot protect them from sharp cuts in the subsidies they receive? Self-styled Messiahs who promise heaven on earth tend to reap fury from those they have conned.

I have long been an admirer of John Boehner. He is the man who made Paul Ryan chairman of the House Budget Committee; and, when Ryan proposed what amounts to audacity on the part of the Republicans given their previous conduct, Boehner backed him to the hilt. Back in 2010, moreover, as I noted at the time, he had the sense to nationalize the elections to Congress by taking a page out of Newt Gingrich’s playbook and getting the Republican candidates to sign unto his Pledge to America. Had Mitt Romney been as canny in 2012, when he was in charge, he might be President today with a Senate in Republican hands.

I have said little about Mitch McConnell who deserves a great deal of credit as well. When it came to taxes, having been dealt a weak hand, he played the game with consummate skill, and he elicited from Joe Biden a far better deal than we might otherwise have gotten.

I do not mean to say that Boehner and McConnell are entirely without defects. Neither man is eloquent. Neither is capable of making the argument that needs to be made on our behalf. And Margaret Thatcher was surely right when she said, “First you win the argument. Then, you win the election.”

But these two men do have virtues. They are consummate deal-makers. They understand the fears and weaknesses of their opponents, and on a good day they can play the Democrats like a piano.

Soon we will have an opportunity to hear Barack Obama deliver the State of the Union speech. If past performance is a precedent, he will treat us to a great deal of nastiness. In my opinion, the nastier, the better. For the more he dispenses venom and whips up the extremists on his side, the more awkward it will be when he finds himself stymied at every turn.

Those Presidents who manage to get reelected for a second term nearly always improve on their first performance at the polls as a Presidential candidate. In the aftermath, nonetheless, they nearly always have a hard time. Barack Obama was reelected with far fewer votes than he received the first time around. He thinks that he won and won big. He is in for a real comeuppance, and my bet is that he will not handle it at all well. In the circumstances, it may be a good thing that McConnell and Boehner are soft-spoken and understated. The contrast between their reticence and gentleness of manner and the President’s garrulousness and spleen ought to stand them in good stead. If they handle all of this as well as they seem likely to — and if the Republicans in the states can find some good senatorial candidates — 2014 will be for Barack Obama the year when hubris encounters nemesis.