Thoughts of Future Past
Only a little over three weeks remain before the next election. We should take stock of where we are, where we came from, and where we could be going.
Four years ago on this date, Americans faced in awe the possibility that we could actually elect a black man to the most powerful office on Earth. The impossible happened. On November 4, 2008, Barack Hussein Obama became the 44th President of the United States. He was sworn in on January 20, 2009, just three days after the 80th birthday of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. On that very evening, Republican Congressional leaders met in the Caucus Room restaurant in Washington DC to plot the downfall of the Obama presidency, even if it meant undermining and destroying the US economy.
The luminaries in attendance included, among others, Representative Eric Cantor (R-Richmond, VA), Representative Pete Sessions (R-Dallas, TX), Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC), Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) — and Representative Paul Ryan (R-Janesville, WI), the current Republican Vice Presidential nominee. Also present were political operative Frank Luntz and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. They set the tone of Congress — and, thereby, the terms of the national debate — for the ensuing four years.
The nature of the meeting is well-documented, and undisputed. According to reports, during this four-hour meeting the participants agreed to bring the work of Congress to a standstill, regardless of any active harm it would do to the American economy. They agreed to block all legislation, even matters they would otherwise support, simply for the purpose of making President Obama look bad. The birth of the Republican obstructionism of the 111th and 112th Congresses occurred in that room.
Some of their effort failed. President Obama shepherded through Congress a stunning panoply of major legislation, from the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, from the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Most of the major legislation in President Obama’s first term was enacted with few Republican votes — usually with none at all, as the Caucus Room meeting had planned. Despite the undeniable legislative successes of the first two years, forged in an atmosphere of unrelenting hostility and brick-wall opposition, Republicans did succeed in painting the President as partisan and unwilling to compromise.
This image was a carefully-crafted fiction, of course. President Obama reached out to Republicans even during his presidential campaign. He intentionally modeled his cabinet on the principles of Abraham Lincoln’s bipartisan “Team of Rivals”. In Obama’s cabinet are Republicans Ray LaHood (Secretary of Transportation), John McHugh (Secretary of the Army), Robert Gates (Secretary of Defense) and Chuck Hagel (Co-Chair of Intelligence Board). He appointed Utah’s Republican Governor John Huntsman to be Ambassador to China, and nominated Republican Senator Judd Gregg to be Secretary of Commerce (Gregg declined the honor).
Even during the prolonged and contentious debate on health care reform, President Obama reached out to Republican leaders for recommendations and suggestions. The final bill was based on Republican proposals, and contained hundreds of Republican amendments.
Yet the final votes on the Affordable Care Act included not one Republican “yea”. This wasn’t because Republicans had been excluded in crafting the bill; it was because Republican leadership had vowed to oppose anything President Obama supported, regardless of the content of the bill, or the consequences for the nation. The whole point was to pretend President Obama was “forcing” a partisan agenda on the nation, when in fact, the partisan nature of the conversation in Washington was being engineered entirely by the Republican Party.
The lame duck session at the end of the 111th Congress, in December of 2010, proved to be amazingly productive. In the absence of pressure to campaign, Congress approved — with overwhelming support from both parties — an historic nuclear arms treaty with Russia, a bill to help survivors of the 2001 September 11 terrorist attacks, an extension of the Bush-era tax cuts, an extension of the stimulative payroll tax holiday, an extension of unemployment benefits, a repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”, a sweeping reform of food safety laws, and a $4.5 billion child nutrition plan and expansion of the the federal school lunch program.
That lame-duck session reveals what could happen, the bipartisan progress that can be made, if Republican leaders simply get out of the way, stop trying to bring down a duly-elected President, and simply let Congress do its job. The President’s supporters have frequently chided him for bending over backwards in an attempt to be accommodating to intransigent and inflexible Republican opposition. Whether the amazingly productive 2010 lame-duck session was due to the President’s willingness to compromise, or simply a result of a sudden and temporary spasm of responsibility and civic consciousness on the part of Republicans, remains an unsettled question.
What does this bode for the future? There are a number of vital issues which need to be resolved within the first few months after the election — the question of the once-more-expiring Bush tax cuts and payroll tax holiday and unemployment benefits; the sequester of federal funds looming due to the failure of the budget Supercommittee, mandated because of Republican obstinacy over raising the debt ceiling; and speaking of the debt ceiling, another increase in federal borrowing authority for FY 2013 and beyond; and the details of the 2013 federal budget — among other sticky matters. The final form of these decisions will undoubtedly be shaped, in part, by awareness of the winners and losers next month.
It will be shaped, too, by the differences between the 111th Congress and the 112th. In 2010, elected Republicans included a far smaller percentage of Tea Party activists than we have infesting the halls of the capital today. The débâcle of the 2011 debt ceiling debate could not have occurred (and did not occur) at any prior point in American history. A resolution of the fiscal cliff we face may have to await the actual swearing-in of the 113th Congress next January. The creatures currently seated may be entirely incapable of any ideological compromise.
The point is, the current atmosphere in Washington is a direct and intentionally-engineered result of the January 2009 Caucus Room plot. One way or another, the flavor may change sometime after the election. We may have four more years of deadlock. That could well happen. There are two other possibilities.
If there is a Democratic wave, then sufficient numbers of Tea Party obstructionists may be washed away to allow actual progress and compromise — the lifeblood of American governance for the last two centuries — to flow once more.
Alternatively, a new Republican president and Republican control of both houses of Congress would put the responsibility of national stewardship into the hands of people who have shown no desire to actually govern.
- Republicans Eager to Embarrass Obama End Up Compromising US Security
- When partisan impulses meet health care needs
- Obama Calls On Congress
- Analysis: Obama’s health care law historic reform and signature failure
- Cenk and Eliot Spitzer to President Obama: Stop pre-emptively compromising with Republicans
About dcpetterson (186 posts)
D. C. Petterson is a novelist and a software consultant in Minnesota who has been writing science fiction since the age of six. He is the author of A Melancholy Humour, Rune Song and Still Life. He lives with his wife, two dogs, two cats, and a lizard, and insists that grandchildren are the reward for having survived teenagers. When not writing stories or software, he plays guitar and piano, engages in political debate, and reads a lot of history and physics texts—for fun. Follow on Twitter @dcpetterson