Pundits on the right are declaring “Boehner Blinks” and “House Republicans Cave”, while the left is gleefully touting “Obama Wins” and “Victory”. Pardon me for not sharing in either the glee of the left or the shame of the right over the payroll tax charade. Neither is justified. To make my point I cite these three axioms of politics:
- Pandering always trumps austerity when a single group is given a choice. (The only way to lose a pander is to pander to a narrow group and impose austerity on a broader group, or blatantly pander to buy votes, and get caught.)
- Presidents always have the upper hand against opposition in congress. (Forget the bully pulpit, network face-time, press office, etc. Presidents can outmaneuver congress the way a Porsche outmaneuvers a freight train, even before taking the bully pulpit into account.)
- No party can lead while controlling only half a branch of the legislature. (When Newt Gingrich and the Republicans succeeded in working with Bill Clinton to get all those landmark agenda items through, like a balanced budget, welfare reform, and capital gains tax cuts, they controlled both the Senate and the House. Republicans today have only the House.)
What this means is that all the handwringing and celebrations going on are unwarranted. For one, this outcome was about as unpredictable as a sunrise. Second, the principled but impolitic stand of the House Republicans will be forgotten in a matter of minutes. And finally, aren’t House approval ratings already in single digits? Does it matter if they go lower?
That’s not to say there weren’t winners and losers in all this. Obama clearly has won a PR battle and will benefit in the polls. On the losing end: everyone who will inherit this mess.
Oh, and Merry Christmas!