Posted by: theoptimisticconservative | July 10, 2011

No “Hollywood victory moments” in the budget fight

Boehner didn’t cave on the budget deal this weekend, as some feared he would.  The prior fears were not by any means inexplicable.  Republicans in Washington are speaking mildly rather than trenchantly, and taking slings and arrows from the chattering class.  There’s no Terminator-type trash talk coming from them.  All the movement and fury seems to be on the Democrats’ side.

And that makes sense, because it’s the Democrats who occupy indefensible ground.  Essentially, their position is that if Republicans won’t agree to raising the debt ceiling and raising taxes, the president will use his discretion to default on US government debt after 2 August.  They don’t put it that way, of course, but that’s the reality.  If Obama defaults on government debt, it will be because he decided to, not because he had to.  He could be impeached for making such a decision.

The money will be there to meet out debt obligations; it just won’t be there to do that and continue to pay for all the other activities of the government.  Obama could, equally, decide to cut expenditures in wildly unpopular ways like shorting Medicare reimbursements or leaving the troops without their pay, but Democrats in Congress wouldn’t let him get away with that either, any more than Republicans would.  The real option after 2 August is to cut expenditures on other operations of the government, including the programs and subsidies that the Obama administration considers its highest priorities.

All of which is why it’s the Democrats who are most alarmed about having to face the choices after 2 August.  The GOP position is not a precarious one.  It’s a strong and meaningful position, and that’s why Obama and the Democrats are mounting a sustained assault, using every trick in the book to get the GOP to give up the ground it has staked out.  Advertently or not, the Republicans have acted according to the strategic maxim of Bismarck’s military genius, Von Moltke the Elder:

A clever military leader will succeed in many cases in choosing defensive positions of such an offensive nature from the strategic point of view that the enemy is compelled to attack us in them.

Why doesn’t the GOP position look more tough and inspiring?  For one thing, because our imaginations have been so conditioned to Hollywood productions and the 120-minute movie package that we think victories have to be signaled by the devices of video storytelling, or they aren’t victories.

But in real life, it rarely happens that way.  Think back to January and the endless, annoying Cirque du Wisconsin with the runaway Democrats hiding out across the state line in the EconoLodge or wherever it was.  There was no Hollywood victory at the end of that sorry episode.  Eventually the Democrats just straggled back.  On balance, the Wisconsin Republicans have been winning the peace.

But they looked, throughout the pitched confrontation, like a herd of deer caught in the headlights:  bemused, a little shell-shocked, a little quizzical.  A lot of conservatives wrote them off because they were just a bunch of modern legislator schmoes, doing modern legislature stuff.  But while the Democrats and unions are still fighting a vociferous rearguard action, and it ain’t over yet, the momentum has clearly turned to the Republicans’ side.

Consider James Pethokoukis’ reference to Reagan and Reykjavik in 1986 (cited by Ed).  Mikhail Gorbachev offered to raise the Reagan ante on strategic arms cuts, the best counteroffer ever presented by a Soviet leader, but Reagan turned it down because Gorbachev’s condition was that Reagan abandon the Strategic Defense Initiative.

This certainly didn’t resonate as a victory at the time.  We don’t remember it today, but the Western media proclaimed an atmosphere of civilizational doom after the Reykjavik summit.  You couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting an editorial containing the phrase “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.”  Even many of Reagan’s staunchest supporters wondered if the old man had finally gone round the bend.  Reagan was defending territory he had staked out – territory so alarming to the Soviets that it drove them to act, maneuver, change their approach, move off of their position – and to the observers of the time, that looked like disaster.

What we do remember today, however, is that it was Reagan who got what he wanted in the end.

In politics, victory often comes on little cat feet.  I won’t be surprised if the way a GOP budget victory looks to the public is a lot like how it looks in Wisconsin today.  An interim solution rather than a grand bargain; a sense of tension maintained rather than the catharsis of a satisfying conclusion.

There will be work left to do, but a shift of momentum.  An MSM counter-narrative will be retailed relentlessly, on the water-torture principle.  Paroxysms of caterwauling will persist from the Democrats and their constituencies.  From the GOP, no glory, no stirring speeches, no one-liners.  No string crescendo, no pulsating beat.  Nothing but a bunch of Republicans looking weary and dithery, like they just stumbled in from a windstorm – but haven’t forgotten what they went out into it for.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at Hot Air’s Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, and The Weekly Standard online.



  1. Yes, when you have the law, civilized norms and inescapable realities on your side all you need to do is stand pat and point to the laws, norms and realities–and let the other side exhaust itself in hysterics. The interesting question is why it so often seems to be so hard to do.

  2. Well, I wish I were as certain that this will work as you are, Opticon.

    It’s hard to calmly point out laws, norms and realities when these are unpleasant. Getting angry and slinging charges actually makes good psychological sense when people face a difficult situation. Talking calmly can have the perverse effect of making people think that the situation is not as dire as it is, and that the Republicans’ insistence on taking it seriously is inspired by political calculation more than concern for the nation’s welfare.

  3. Nobody



  4. I looked at the McConnell interview that Fuster cited. My interpretation of it is very different. The R’s know that the Dem-Media ranting will inevitably grow more and more hysterical as Aug 2nd approaches, so the R’s are much better off to be perceived as trying to negotiate something for as long as possible. After all, Obama is moved only by dreams (fast-fading, I believe) of re-election, so he will say anything. But he’ll never cut a real and enforceable deal that would reduce spending — it’s contrary to his nature. He will always return to: we need to spend more, we need to tax more. Why in the world would anyone trust him? It’s much better to be repeatedly “summoned” to the WH, listen to his blather, and come out to greet the press with a “well, we’re trying, but . . .”

    In other words, no matter what the R’s do or don’t do, they will be condemned by the media. So just keep the “suspense” going — it plays into the media’s high school civics view of the world.

    However, ultimately the R’s have the advantage here: they don’t need to do anything — it’s Obama and the D’s who need/desire to raise the debt ceiling.
    And for that, they need the R-controlled House to go along.

    My bet is that, on Aug 1st at 11 pm (or perhaps 8 pm, so Obama can make one of his yawner “I saved the Nation” speeches in prime time), a deal will be cut. And, without raising taxes, there will be a $1 trillion “cut” (all illusory of course) and a $1 trillion dollar raise in the debt ceiling. And Obama will continue to fund windmills and other economic sinkholes.

    • DAN,
      you might remember how well “we insist and we’ll just sit back and let it shut down and since there’s a Democrat in the White House, the American people will blame him” worked when Gingrich did it……..the farce work less well the second time.

      It’s good time to negotiate, not much more.


  6. Von Moltke….my Aunt Fanny, the Republicans are going to go the way von Schlieffen went, mumbling the same words and consumed with a concern for a conquest that they won’t live to see.

  7. Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. But those who believe that history will repeat itself are doomed to be surprised.

  8. The Democrats are working with two scripts: one, where they manipulate and, with the help of their allies in the media, bully the Republicans into raising taxes–just like they did with Bush in 1990; two, they shut down the government and blame the Republicans, just like they did in 1995. The scripts themselves reek of desperation–there is no reason for the Republicans to allow themselves to be pressured into raising taxes, and a government shutdown can be interpreted in a lot of different ways: it’s cargo cult style thinking to assume it must play out exactly as in 1995. and, the Democrats are increasingly desperate in their attempts to effect these narratives, even to the point of infecting David Brooks with their panic. Much like the Israelis, the Republicans should keep declaring and demonstrating their willingness to negotiate while pointing out the other side’s unwillingness to do so in good faith. The Democrats lost the last election big and are not looking to be in such good shape for the next one. Just stay calm and firm.

  9. I just read some of the exchange on a previous thread in which Fuster both predicted and justified Obama targeting his political enemies in any budget crisis–i.e., cutting money going to Cantor’s or Boehner’s districts, specifically. Bring it on, I say–if Obama will actually do that, it makes me hope for a refusal on the Republicans part to increase the debt ceiling. Nothing, aside perhaps from the growing “Fast and Furious” scandal, could sink Obama more certainly than such blatant banana republic tactics. And he couldn’t just stop at the leadership, could he–he’d have to take on Republicans all down the line. And the media wouldn’t be able to ignore it (what good would the punishment be?)–they would have to cheer him on vociferously. Maybe they can bus protestors into some Republican districts. And the Democrats will be sure that the public who, after all, voted for Obama (whereas presumably all those Republicans just snuck into office somehow) will be with them. The desperation is a thing of beauty.

  10. I hear you, Margo, but as any parent knows, anger and agitation are not useful sentiments when you’re trying to hold your position. Adopting an angry posture makes anger the issue, and settling it becomes the de facto goal. Being unappeasable becomes a liability, which is why the Democrats are working so hard to make it appear that that’s just what the Republicans are.

    Aside from dynamics and tactics, though, I think the main reason the Republicans are staying in the negotiation track is that it remains possible to achieve a deal that will satisfy them. I understand what Darkness is saying, but I don’t think it’s mere calculation on the Republicans’ part — i.e., merely “looking like” they’re negotiating. The responsible thing to do is continue to try to negotiate an end to this, rather than have the inevitable budget problem kick in on 2 August.

    Naturally, fuster interprets this as brinkmanship. The correct way to see it is as the Republicans hoping to avert a problem for everyone, but knowing they don’t have to concede on principle because it’s Obama who will have to face the unpalatable decisions, and who will be on the hook for them.

    For the GOP, an interim agreement to keep the budget going a while longer is a victory. The main thing is to avoid a grand bargain that involves raising the debt ceiling irresponsibly and raising taxes. The Democrats will continue trying to spook the Republicans into conceding to a grand bargain, but the Republicans hold the stronger hand, if they’ll just stand their ground.

    • fusternaturally, does see brinksmanship in the Republican position. fuster,also sees the plain good sense in lopping at the debt and expects that the Republicans who’re saying “not another penny” in taxes are whiffing at the ball if they mean to hold tp that line, (which is a stance, not a principle)

      • I wonder who you think is demanding that the Republicans compromise and agree to raise taxes–who that the Republicans need to worry about, that is (who will vote for them if they do raise taxes and against them if they don’t). What possible calculation can militate against them holding the line here?

        • adam, I don’t know what would make them agree to taxes, because I don’t know what it is thats most important to them.

          There’s at least three things they seem to be looking for
          1) reduce the debt
          2) don’t raise taxes
          3) score a political triumph over the Dems and Obama ahead of the election.

          If reducing the debt is their primary goal, then a deal which increases taxes as part (15-20%) of a package that cuts (maybe) $4trillion should make them move the line.

          if no tax increase is primary then that’s that and they’re not gonna get much beyond spending cuts that offset the incremental increase of the ceiling.

          if the politics is driving it all I sure don’t know what they might do.

          • In that case, at what “ball” are they “whiffing”? I took that to be an assertion that they won’t “hold that line”–this most recent analysis of yours suggests that they are likely to hold it, even (or especially) if you think “politics” might be driving the decision.

  11. they were whiffing at getting a healthy cut at reducing the deficit. by making a deal that includes some taxes for larger spending cuts.

    • I see–thanks for the clarification. But you whiff at a ball, not at a cut; a whiff can be a healthy cut (at the ball), because even with a healthy cut you can miss (i.e., whiff)–so, I guess “lopping the debt” is the “ball.” I suppose that works, metaphorically speaking.

  12. Hoover proposed a chicken in every pot. Obama wants to put a diversity manual in every pot. Is there any wonder we’re broke?

    The Omaha World-Herald reports:

    The Omaha Public Schools used more than $130,000 in federal stimulus dollars to buy each teacher, administrator and staff member a manual on how to become more culturally sensitive. . . .
    The authors assert that American government and institutions create advantages that “channel wealth and power to white people,” that color-blindness will not end racism and that educators should “take action for social justice.”
    The book says that teachers should acknowledge historical systemic oppression in schools, including racism, sexism, homophobia and “ableism,” defined by the authors as discrimination or prejudice against people with disabilities. . . .
    The Omaha school board approved buying 8,000 copies of the book–one for every employee, including members of the custodial staff–in April.

    Your tax dollars at work! Or rather, your tax dollars will be at work for years paying the interest on the money the federal government borrowed from the Chinese to pay Omaha’s diversity-manual bill.

    • DAN, IIRC Omaha has some problems with segregation and school districts. The city was about 80% white and the blacks and Hispanics were each in one spot in !975 when the courts ordered busing.
      Things hadn’t really changed 1999 (except that there were more Hispanics in one clump) when they stopped busing.
      Still haven’t changed and there was some racial violence stuff being reported between 2000 and now.
      Maybe some things made giving teachers manuals as an impetus toward teaching the kids something about peaceful co-existence not so outlandish, even if it cost something like $3/kid enrolled.

  13. For Omaha’s problem as you describe it, Fuster, the diversity manuals should have gone to mortgage applicants and realtors.

    • good point, Margo. and I’m sure that some of Omaha’s school kids will assume those positions.

  14. Actually, realtors already have legal guidance on discrimination, and so do school adminitrators. But central administrators and their employees, including printers, need federally funded work to do.

    • a lot of people need federally funded work to do. ask our hostess.

  15. Fuster: you’ve got to be kidding. You can’t seriously believe that (1) anyone in Omaha is going to read that drivel; (2) that, even if they did, it would do anything other than spread more pernicious politically correct blather; and (3) that these manuals have anything to do with “stimulating” our economy.

    I am confident that the contract for the manuals was just a political payoff to someone connected to the Democrat party in Omaha or to the school district (or to both, if there is even a distinction).

    The manuals are a total waste of money, and, frankly, human effort.

    Get a grip, Fuster.

    ps: i must admit that I’m delighted that I apparently lured you into taking the silly positions that your taking, when all i was intending was a little “stimulus” comic relief.

    • DAN, glad that you’re delighted, but I haven’t taken the position that the manuals will provide that magic touch that corrects a mess centuries in the making.

      Nor have I taken the position that the manuals will do anything other “than spread more pernicious politically correct blather” because, I’ve not read them, as I’m sure is true of you.

      The snippet that you’ve quoted sounds strident and overwrought but not substantially erroneous.

      Enjoy and try not to worry about the cost.

  16. You’re right re the cost: it’s only China’s money. And with hyper-inflation, it will only be pennies on the dollar.

    • fen on the yen

  17. McConnell and Boehner have seen that if the bluff about not raising the ceiling gets called, it’s gonna benefit no one and hurtle their Party to hell in a handbasket.

    bluster and bullsnit go only thus far

    • If that were true, Obama would have been in the ditch long ago.

      • I doubt if Obama’s gonna get away with it for much longer than four or five more years, DAN, His comeuppance is coming.

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