The president’s inviting Mitt Romney for lunch is a small thing but a brilliant move. It makes Mr. Obama look big, gracious. It implies the weakened, battered former GOP nominee is the leader of the Republican Party—and if the other party has to have a leader, the weakened, battered one is the one you want.
Mr. Romney is not the leader of the party; he left no footprints in the sand. There is no such thing as Romneyism, no movement of which he’s the standard-bearer. Nor is he a Washington figure with followers. Party leaders already view him as a kind of accident, the best of a bad 2012 lot, a hiccup. The bottom-line attitude of Republican political pros: Look, this is a man who’s lived a good life and would have been a heck of a lot better than Obama, and I backed him. But to be a successful Republican president now requires a kind of political genius, and he didn’t have it and wasn’t going to develop it. His flaws as a candidate would have been his flaws as president. We dodged a bullet.
Republicans may be the stupid party, but they’re not the sentimental one. Democrats often like their losers. Republicans like winners, and they find reasons to be moved by them after they’ve won.
To the extent the GOP has an elected face, it is that of Speaker John Boehner. And he is precisely the man with whom Mr. Obama should be having friendly lunches. In fact, the meal with Mitt just may be a clever attempt to obscure the fact that the president isn’t really meeting with those with whom he’s supposed to be thrashing out the fiscal cliff.
At a news conference Thursday, Mr. Boehner looked frustrated. In fact, he looked exactly the way he looked at the end of the debt-ceiling crisis in the summer of 2011—like someone who wanted a deal, was willing to gamble to get it, and failed. There has been “no substantive progress” toward an agreement, he said. In a meeting with Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and in a Wednesday night phone call with the president, he saw no willingness to reform or cut entitlement spending. What about an increase in tax rates? “Revenues are on the table.”
In fact the Democratic position on entitlements seems to have hardened.
In a way Mr. Boehner’s press conference was the usual, but in a way it was sad, because it harkened back to the protracted, harum-scarum and unsatisfying fiscal negotiations of the recent past.
The election is over, a new era begins—and it looks just like the old one. A crisis is declared. Confusion, frustration, and a more embittered process follow. This is . . . the Obama Way. Nothing has changed, even after a yearlong campaign that must, at times, have looked to him like a near-death experience. He still doesn’t want to forestall jittery, gloom-laden headlines and make an early deal with the other guy. He wants to beat the other guy.
You watch and wonder: Why does it always have to be cliffs with this president? Why is it always a high-stakes battle? Why doesn’t he shrewdly re-enact Ronald Reagan, meeting, arguing and negotiating in good faith with Speaker Tip O’Neill, who respected very little of what the president stood for and yet, at the end of the day and with the country in mind, could shake hands and get it done? Why is there never a sense with Mr. Obama that he understands the other guys’ real position?
It’s not as if Mr. Boehner and the Republicans wouldn’t deal. They’ve been weakened and they know it. A year ago they hoped winning the Senate and the presidency would break the stasis. They won neither. Mr. Obama not only was re-elected, it wasn’t that close, it was a clean win. If the president was clear about anything throughout the campaign, it was that he wanted to raise taxes on those he calls the rich. So you might say that a majority of the American people just endorsed that move.
No one would know this better than Mr. Boehner, who has risen to where he is in part because he’s good at seeing the lay of the land and admitting what’s there.
The president would only benefit from showing he has the command and capability to meet, argue, press and come to agreement. It would be heartening to the country to see this, and would impress the world. And the Republicans would like to get it done.
In narrow, purely political terms, they need two things quickly. One is that it now looks to everyone—even to them!—like the entire domestic agenda of the Republican Party is tax-cutting, and any party’s agenda has to be bigger than that. The other is that when they try to protect people from higher tax rates they always look like Diamond Jim Brady enjoying the company of the wealthy and not noticing anybody else. Republicans need time to work through, within their party, their own larger economic stands.
So they’re weakened, they want this particular crisis to end, and they badly need to win entitlement reforms that would, in the end, buttress the president’s historical standing—and the president isn’t working with them every day and making a deal?
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Here’s just one thing they should be discussing. Mr. Obama wants to raise tax rates on those earning $250,000 or more, as we know, on the assumption that they are “the rich.” But if you are a man with a wife and two kids making that salary and living in Westfield, N.J., in no way do you experience yourself to be rich, because you’re not. You pay federal payroll and income taxes, state income and sales taxes and local property taxes, and after the mortgage, food and commuting costs you don’t have much to spare.
Tighten the squeeze on that couple, and they’ll change how they live. They’ll stop sending the struggling son to a neighborhood tutor, they’ll stop going out to dinner once a week, they’ll cut off the baby sitter, fire the guy who once a month does yard work, and hold back on new clothes. Also the guy will peruse employment ads in Florida and Texas, potentially removing from blue-state New Jersey his heartening, taxpaying presence.
It really is worth a discussion, isn’t it? A closer look at the numbers? Shared thoughts on how Americans really live?
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In an interview last year, shortly after the debt-ceiling debate, Mr. Boehner spoke of how much he’d wanted a deal. He wanted entitlement reforms, cuts in spending, was happy to increase revenues through tax reform. He thought our fiscal realities the great issue of his speakership, said he meant it when he told staffers if it resulted in the end of his speakership then so be it. He’d have walked out of Congress knowing “I did the right thing.”
That’s who Obama should be negotiating with—in good faith, and with his eye not on ideology but on the country.
Instead, it’s going to be a long four weeks. Scratch that, it’s going to be a long four years.