Thursday, January 1, 2009

One Nation politics

Josh Marshall:

Noam Scheiber asks whether, in an effort to attract substantial Republican support, Obama is aiming for too low a dollar amount ($675-$775 billion over 24 months) in his upcoming fiscal stimulus package.

I'm torn on this. As Noam points out, that looks to be a starting point at the low end of what most economists think is necessary, leaving treacherously little safe room to negotiate down. And everything about our recent history and current predicament tells me we have to be bold and aggressive, on policy and politics. But I've always had a weakness for One Nation politics; so I'm not willing to discount the possibility that Obama reshuffle the deck politically, operate under a different calculus.

If Obama doesn't fix the economy, what "calculus" does Marshall think he'll be "operating under"? Out here in the real world -- the world that has paid attention for the past 16 years -- we know what will happen: the Republican noise machine will crank up into high gear, and Obama will become another failed, big spending liberal who doesn't know how to do anything except "throw money at problems." Hooverism, even a fringe policy on the fringe right, will suddenly become, politically, a viable economic philosophy, and Obama will be lucky if he gets re-elected, let alone "reshuffles the deck politically," as Marshall put it.

In reality, Obama has one, and exactly one, way to "reshuffle" the political deck: succeed. He's got to demonstrate, clearly and with no room for misunderstanding, that a Democrat fixed things using liberal policy prescriptions, that the Republicans didn't only foul things up, but their entire economic program for the past 20 years was built on an erroneous understanding of how things work: he has to leave them no philosophical corner to hide in, much as FDR's New Deal did in the '30s. That led to a true "reshuffling of the political deck," as first Eisenhower, then Nixon, ruled as caretakers of liberal politics rather than as agents of conservative ideals. In order to achieve something similar to what FDR did, Obama has to fix the economy. The smart way to do that is to figure out how much money he thinks he will need, and then demand half again that amount, in order to give himself negotiating room, plus some margin for error (Once upon a time -- it seems like years ago now -- the 700 billion Paulson got was thought to be more than he would need). And if the Republicans obstruct, he has to make it clear that obstructing is exactly what they are doing. Mark Sanford didn't back down on unemployment assistance because someone played nice with him and asked, "Pretty please." He did it because he knew what would happen to him politically if he let those benefits run out. Self interest is the lingua franca of politics -- at least in this "One World." Obama had better show he knows how to speak it.

There is one thing I'll say about Obama's plan: the timing, 24 months, gives him a potential stick to beat the Republicans with during the 2010 elections. When it comes time to ask for more money -- and it probably will -- he can force Republicans running for re-election to make a painful choice, and most of them will choose -- as Sanford did here -- the politically safe way and give in on the money. It's an obvious play, and one I'm sure the Obama team deliberately built into the package. But Paulson has already burned through almost all the 700 billion he got, and that was given to him six months ago. Things are too dicey at this point to play political games. Either Obama fixes the economy, or the shit hits the fan -- the political, as well as the economic, shit.

Four years ago at this time people were hysterically talking about a "permanent Republican majority": things can change fast -- especially if you are running things ineptly, and with an eye more on politics than on competent governance. It's a lesson most people should have learned a while ago, especially those people like Marshall, who make their living commenting on politics. I hope Obama, who makes his living, and ours, by practicing politics, did learn that lesson.