How Obama Killed the Norquist Pledge

Under the pressure of the fiscal cliff, Republicans are beginning to buckle. And the first casualty seems to be - drumrolls, please - the Grover Norquist pledge. I mean, when Republicans from blood-red states like Georgia and South Carolina start telling Grover Norquist to go suck a thumb, you know something palpable has changed in American politics. The one pledge that has come to define Republican governance - the "taxes = baaad" paradigm - is falling apart.

Why? Sure, it's because President Obama won re-election and that fiscal cliff - the one that Republican set up for themselves - is coming crashing down on them at the end of the year. But how did we get here?

You see, the prevailing wisdom in the beltway is that we ended up in the bind of the fiscal cliff through Washington's paralysis of governing. And that's partially true. But that the paralysis is resulting today in Republicans abandoning their central economic philosophy wasn't a given. In fact, it wouldn't have happened were it not for the brilliant setup created by the president.

Too many people in the beltway seem to internalize an interesting case of cognitive dissonance about this president: that he is both a brilliant tactician who put together an unprecedented coalition to become the first Democrat to win a majority of the popular vote twice since FDR and that he's a dumb negotiator who gives away football fields to opponents and "negotiates against himself." Both things cannot be true, regardless of how much the beltway insists on both.

So what gives? Barack Obama is the most brilliant strategic mind of our time - perhaps since FDR. Anyone who believes that he did not figure out the Republican tactic of obstructing everything and being hell bent on robbing the public sector of all possible revenue within his first few months in office is a fool. He did figure it out. And when he figured it out, he set out to systematically destroy it. But being a strategic genius, he knew that it wasn't going to be done in a day. In the first two years, he had  sizeable (but by no means non-obstructable) Democratic majorities in the House and the Senate, and he needed to get the big policy agenda through: the largest economic recovery package in history, health care reform, Wall Street reform, equal pay for women, credit card reform, student loan reform, repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell, keeping the safety net tight while the economy was still in upheaval.

He also more than likely knew that doing all these big reforms through essentially only Democratic votes will take compromises within the Democratic caucus that the purist progressives wouldn't like. In fact, they wouldn't like it so much that they would actively tell people to sit home in 2010. That, combined with the still-volatile economy gave Republicans what they thought was the chance of a lifetime - to send a shockwave of red tide. Republicans won that election and believed it was vindication for their tactic to hold back progress. They saw a chance to kill off the progressive president's agenda once and forever by doubling down on their obstruction, which they assumed would send them to victory in 2012.

But then, the tax cuts were going to expire at the end of 2010, as well as unemployment and other safety net benefits. Triumphant from an election, Republicans made a deadly mistake: they took the Norquist pledge as biblical. When the president offered them a deal they couldn't refuse - freezing all tax rates and enacting a new one for the payroll tax, and asked for an extension of the safety net benefits as the price, they saw what was a brilliant setup for a cave-in from a politically rebuked president. And really, all they needed was to extend the tax rates till 2012, since they believed their own hype that this president would be a goner after this election.

But the payroll tax cut, the middle class tax cuts, the unemployment insurance benefits and other safety net benefits aren't ... how do I say... "gifts", as Mitt Romney so eloquently put it of late. They are, on the contrary, an economic stimulus of a massive size. All of that helped spur consumer spending, stablized home prices, and began creating jobs. See, the very deal that Republicans thought was a concession from a shellacked president was setting up the case for an improved economy, and thus, the president's re-election.

Republicans continued to live in their happy bubble through 2011 - when in the much maligned debt limit deal, they agreed to huge cuts on defense while the president sequestered out Medicare benefits, Social Security, and programs for the poor. In fact, the Republicans were in such denial that John Boehner bragged about getting 98% of what he wanted. But all of those cuts too would come at the beginning of 2013, when, Republicans of course believed there would be a new right wing president. Nothing got cut up front, the president got is debt limit increase, and Republicans never bothered to get out of their happy bubble. They were joined in that bubble by a lot of "liberals" whose first inkling has always been that this president was betraying us despite the record.

All of this - the Republican bubble - hinged on a single thing, however. Their fantasy would or would not become reality based on a singular event: the 2012 presidential election. The Republicans bet their house on their inside-the-bubble idea that they were successful in their obstruction and thus this president would be a one-term president. The President, on the other hand, made a different bet with the same hinge. He bet that he could make the case to the American people to return him to office. While Republicans did everything with an eye towards a goal of making this president a failure, the president put his presidency on the line to do the right thing. And he took his case to the American people.

The American people listened, and we sent the president back to the White House with a thumping victory. Suddenly, the Republican bubble burst. Suddenly, their house of cards collapsed in on itself. Suddenly, the GOP found a strengthened, re-elected President who ran on the promise of raising taxes on the wealthiest, and won. Twice. The real "demographic" the GOP should be worried about isn't just the increasingly ethnically diverse face of America but a the spring of a new American economic patriotism that believes in the common good and in investing in our people by ensuring everyone pay their fair share.

Republicans were not prepared. They weren't prepared for the possibility that the president would win re-election and that all of their obstruction would blow up in their faces in the form of the fiscal cliff. And now they are scurrying like roaches to figure out a way to avoid the cliff, knowing the president holds most of the cards. They put a lot of things on the bet that Obama would lose, and now that it didn't happen, they are abandoning their pledge never ever to ask the rich to pay their fair share. Right now, saving their defense jobs and not being blamed for another recession is suddenly more important to them than holding firm on the Norquist pledge.

Those of us who said during the debt ceiling negotiations in 2011 and the tax cut deal in 2010 that the president was setting it all up for this moment were ridiculed, laughed at, and marginalized by the beltway just as well as the idiotic Professional media on the Left and Right. But that's exactly what he did. When we said that the Republicans were putting far more on the line than the president, we were berated as betrayers to the Left.

Well, I guess there's no better revenge than being right. A month ago, it would have been unthinkable that Republicans would ever abandon the Norquist pledge. But that is exactly what is happening right now. Republicans are killing the pledge, doing it publicly and prominently. The President's re-election proved that the pledge is no longer relevant in the era of the new economic patriotism where we believe in a fair society - fair share, equal opportunity and fair treatment. But this test was set up for the past two years. It didn't happen in a day. It took strategy, planning, and flawless execution.

Well done, Mr. President.



A personal note: I hope you all had a happy and safe Thanksgiving. I apologize for my absence, but first, I got some rest. And second, over the weekend, my house almost caught on fire from an oven ablaze (thank goodness for the fire department, the home and I are both safe), and it was terrifying. I need some breathers.