Barack Obama’s speech yesterday outlining a $4 trillion framework for restoring America’s fiscal health introduced a brutal new argument to his plea for bipartisan decision-making: if you don’t compromise with me now, I’ll campaign against your biggest ideas in next year’s presidential election.
Sitting in a campus hall crowded with the sons and daughters of America’s most fortunate, Republican lawmakers were given a 55 minute preview of what Obama could repeat to hundreds of similar audiences around the country. Referring to Representative Paul Ryan’s (and now the Republican Party’s) plan to address the fiscal crisis, the President exclaimed:
“They want to give people like me a $200,000 tax cut that's paid for by asking 33 seniors each to pay $6,000 more in health costs. That's not right. And it's not going to happen as long as I'm President.”
Democrat efforts to sell a selective tax increase on the top two per cent of income earners failed politically in the last two elections. The argument that Washington needed the money was disputed; nothing tangible seemed to be at stake. The issue bored young Democrats and fueled Republican claims among independents that Obama liberals were out to socialize America. Now it’s out: without new money vital federal services, not just bureaucracy will suffer.
Yesterday, Obama put Medicaid and Medicare, along with free enterprise and rugged individualism, front and center in the American Dream. In asking for shared sacrifice and the preservation of a national safety net for seniors, the disabled and the poor, Obama offered the Republican’s a stark choice: find the center with me in Washington this summer or I’ll define it without you, with the American electorate.
Bipartisanship needn’t only appeal to a politician’s better angels. Otherwise, democratic government wouldn’t work. Republican leaders in the Sixties co-operated with Democrats on civil rights legislation and Democrat leaders in the Nineties co-operated with Republicans on welfare reform, not because they had better social skills and no radicals in their caucuses, but because they feared standing completely outside the American consensus.
When the center is undefined, it’s easy to propose big new ideas. However, when the center is given a voice, a radical idea can quickly be seen as extreme.
If Obama succeeds in securing a fiscal agreement with Republicans, in large part, it will be because they conclude that Obama’s speech yesterday is closer to where Americans want to end up than their “Path to Prosperity.” They’ll re-discover the virtue of compromise and the ancient wisdom of allowing bold new ideas a little more time to mature.