The Golden Calf of Compromise

It’s okay with me that a lot of people didn’t like Barack Obama’s big economic policy speech in Cleveland. But one objection, from WaPo’s Dana Milbank is just maddening.

What Milbank objected to was Obama’s basic framing of the election as a “choice” between two fundamentally different points of view that had brought Washington to gridlock, requiring action by voters to follow one path or the other:

He’s right about the stalemate. But he’s absolutely wrong that November offers an opportunity to break it. No scenario shows either party with a chance of amassing a solid governing majority of the sort Obama had when he took office. The way to break the stalemate is through compromise, not conquest.

Actually, Dana, either party with control of the White House and both Houses of Congress can “break the gridlock” in the sense of charting a fundamentally different fiscal course via the use of the reconciliation process,so long as party ranks hold. Everyone seems to have forgotten that because Democrats chose not to use reconciliation (or, as some would have it, chose to recognize that the use of reconciliation would have required structural changes in the legislation to keep it within the boundaries of the budget process) with respect to the major legislative initiative they advanced prior to losing the House in 2010, health care reform. Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan have zero intention of “compromising” if they get to 50 votes in the Senate.

But Milbank isn’t interested in just any old compromise: he very specifically wants Obama to compromise on “entitlement reform” as a “solution” to the “debt crisis:”

Despite his claim that “both parties have laid out their policies on the table,” Obama has made no serious proposal to fix the runaway entitlement programs that threaten to swamp the government’s finances….

Undoubtedly, Obama would take heat from his base if he put forth a serious plan along the lines of Bowles-Simpson, whose recommendations he never quite embraced. Doing so would also blunt his political advantage as the defender of Medicare from Republican marauders.

But taking a stand on concrete fixes for the nation’s fiscal problems would get Obama credit for strong leadership — and he would be able to tell the new economic narrative Americans crave. There’s even the remote chance that taking such a gamble would bring Republicans to the table.

So Obama should abandon his own approach to entitlement spending–gradually bringing down the long-term cost of health care (and thus of Medicare and Medicaid) via persistence in health care reform–and embrace reductions in benefits on the “remote chance” Republicans would meet him half-way and accept high-end tax increases. That’s not compromise, of course; it’s surrender disguised as compromise–unless, of course, Obama, like Milbank, actually supports Republican-style “entitlement reform” on its own merits, independently from anything that happens on the revenue side of the ledger.

The very best you can say about this all-too-familiar Beltway advice is that perhaps Milbank thinks Democrats should bear the entire burden of “leadership” insofar as we all understand Republicans are crazy, stupid or just plain irresponsible. Conceding that, of course, means reinforcing Republican craziness, stupidity, and/or irresponsibility. Anyone who has been paying the least bit of attention to events in Washington since 2009 knows that Barack Obama spent years chasing GOPers around the Capitol offering compromise. They refused, won a big mid-term election, and now see themselves as on the brink of a victory that will enable them to achieve destructive policy goals conservative activists have been dreaming about since 1964.

I’ve already expressed my own skepticism that beating them in November will, as Obama sometimes suggests, “break the fever” and bring them to their senses. But offering them further concessions will surely fail to accomplish anything at all other than giving them the opportunity to pocket the concessions and demand total surrender.

It speaks volumes that a major “centrist” columnist either doesn’t understand these very simple dynamics, or doesn’t care, and blindly worships the golden calf of “compromise” when the basic ingredients for it just don’t exist.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.