GOP compromise fantasy-land: Team Obama’s self-defeating hope for 2015

Leaks to the New York Times on election eve, about plans to craft a GOP-friendly agenda, can only hurt Democrats

Published November 3, 2014 3:12PM (EST)

Mitch McConnell, Ted Cruz                                           (Reuters/Joshua Roberts/AP/J. Scott Applewhite/photo montage by Salon)
Mitch McConnell, Ted Cruz (Reuters/Joshua Roberts/AP/J. Scott Applewhite/photo montage by Salon)

President Obama and his team certainly have the right to be peeved at Kentucky Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes for refusing to say whether she voted for Obama, a sop to white Kentucky Democrats who don’t like the president, at least partly because of his race.

But was Team Obama deliberately undermining Grimes with bewildering leaks to the New York Times about its plans to work with a Republican Senate to compromise on trade, infrastructure and tax reform – and its belief that it may get more done with a Senate led by Grimes’ opponent, Mitch McConnell, than the current Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid?

Reid was the other obvious target of the coordinated White House leaks. Between them, he and Grimes have to be astounded by their fellow Democrats’ decision to go to the New York Times with an optimistic view of what’s possible under a Republican-led Senate, the weekend before a crucial election. But so should all Democrats.

When the president’s staff is suggesting he can do something with McConnell that he couldn't do with Reid, they’re undercutting Grimes’ message that Mitch is Mr. Obstruction – which is the core of her campaign pitch. In fact, defining Republicans as the party of gridlock and failure is key to all Democrats’ pitches this November. So why would presumably smart political professionals think that’s a good message to get out on the eve of Election Day? Because time and again, it’s their fallback: to protect the president at the expense of his party.

When historians look back at why a president elected twice with more than 50 percent of the vote – Obama is the only man to do that since Dwight Eisenhower almost 60 years ago – had so much trouble getting his agenda through Congress, the top reason will be the GOP’s unprecedented commitment to obstruction, heavily powered by the party base’s irrational and racially tinged resistance to Obama. But the second reason will be Obama’s own refusal to take in the extent of that obstruction, and the stubborn belief that he alone has the skills to bring the GOP to the table, time and again – against all available evidence.

From refusing to stand up for an adequate stimulus in 2009 – he got the most he could out of Congress, but should have at least made the case that more was needed – to the decision to delay the Affordable Care Act while Max Baucus tried and failed to round up GOP votes later that year; to its unconscionably early “pivot” to cutting the deficit while the economy was still sluggish in 2010; to the disastrous attempt at a grand bargain in 2011 that helped lead to the debt ceiling debacle, Team Obama’s effort to portray the president as "the only adult in the room" has led to one mess after another, demoralizing Democrats and the country.

Now, the president’s folks are telling the Times “they are mapping possible compromises with Republicans to expand trade, overhaul taxes and build roads and bridges.” Here’s the shot at Reid: “For Mr. Obama, the question may be whether he is liberated from deferring to Senator Harry Reid, the Democratic majority leader, if the party is in the minority. Some Democrats said Mr. Obama had more interest in forging deals than Mr. Reid and could take the lead in brokering agreements.”

That should worry progressives. Reid is responsible for the Democrats’ one big victory in Obama’s second term: holding tight during the government shutdown in 2013 and forcing Republicans to capitulate – after Obama and Biden had undercut Reid earlier in the year to avert the “fiscal cliff.”

The only way there will be "compromise" in 2015 is if Democrats capitulate to GOP ideas. McConnell’s staffer as much as said so to the Times:

Republicans noted that the House had passed dozens of bills bottled up by Senate Democrats and suggested that compromise on some could be a way forward. “If they take a more realistic approach to life and not this designed-to-fail thing, then we can get a lot of stuff done,” said Don Stewart, deputy chief of staff for Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader. “If you start with those, that would keep us busy for a year.” Those bottled-up bills are the Koch brothers’ agenda, cutting taxes and loosening regulations on business and degrading the environment. There can be no compromise there. McConnell himself has promised to attach politically noxious "riders" to spending bills that will force the president's veto -- and then to shut down the government, if Democrats won't help override Obama's veto.

Meanwhile, the real power in the Senate, Sen. Ted Cruz, told the Washington Post his agenda for a Republican-controlled Senate.  “The first order of business,” Cruz said, should be investigative hearings on Obama’s “abuses” – “looking at the abuse of power, the executive abuse, the regulatory abuse, the lawlessness that sadly has pervaded this administration.”

Cruz wouldn’t even share whether he would vote for McConnell.  Does the White House fantasy about compromise with the Senate leave out Cruz entirely?

The president and first lady have done everything they can to help Democrats in the midterms, stumping cross country every place they’ve been asked. So I can’t believe Obama wants Democrats to fail. But some people on his staff obviously care less about the party, and the country, than protecting their boss’s leadership luster. I’ve always said: The only thing worse than an opportunist or a sellout is a failed opportunist or sellout. And they will fail at this. Again.

By Joan Walsh