Congressional Republicans are left with less influence than some apparently think. The debt ceiling is a form of leverage they can’t responsibly use. A partial government shutdown or full implementation of the sequester are less toxic alternatives but of questionable utility. (Threatening liberals with the prospect of huge defense cuts — a part of the sequester — is an attempt to menace them with their deepest desire.)My gawd...there's so much in those 3 paragraphs to love, isn't there?
Given this weak Republican position, Obama must be tempted by a shiny political object: the destruction of the congressional GOP. He knows that Republicans are forced by the momentum of their ideology to take positions on spending that he can easily demagogue. He is in a good position to humiliate them again — to expose their internal divisions and unpopular policy views. It may even be a chance to discredit and then overturn the House Republican majority, finally reversing his own humiliation in the 2010 midterms...
Obama probably still views himself as a pragmatist...But at this moment three factors overlap: his liberal policy instincts, a political opportunity to break his opponents, and the massively inflated self-confidence produced by reelection. So, force the GOP to surrender on the debt limit, with nothing in return. Require Republicans to accept new taxes in exchange for any real spending reductions. If they agree, their caucus is fractured (again). And if they refuse (which they are likely to do), paint them as obstructionists and extremists who are willing to destroy the economy/the nation’s credit rating/the military for their own ideological purposes.
First of all, he totally gets that President Obama got the upper hand in the last debt ceiling deal (something conservatives and many liberals seem loathe to admit) when - in referring to the sequester - he puts his tongue in his cheek and talks about how threatening liberals with huge defense cuts is akin to menacing "them with their deepest desire." Gotta love that one.
Both Jonathan Chait and Steve Benen had good laughs about the idea that "Republicans are forced by the momentum of their ideology to take positions on spending that he [Obama] can easily demagogue." Its almost like they had no choice but to descend into lunacy, isn't it?
But they did have a choice. Since day one President Obama has offered them his outstretched hand to work with them towards bipartisan solutions. That's the conciliatory part. The Republican response was to say "NO" and engage in total obstruction - which is where all that momentum towards their decent into lunacy comes from.
In that last paragraph, Gerson does a great job of summarizing the choices that confront the Republicans on these issues of fiscal policy. Either they take President Obama's outstretched hand to work with him (and create a fracture in their party between the sane and the lunatics) or continue to be viewed as obstructionist extremists. That's where the ruthlessness comes in.
This moment is the result of four years dedicated to the long-game strategy of solidifying in the public mind that President Obama is open to reasonable compromise while allowing the Republicans to paint themselves into a more and more extremist corner. Don't let anyone tell you that its about President Obama finally waking up to his "tough guy" mode or merely the result of being elected to a second term. He put in years of effort to get to this point.
Today Michael Gerson (and many other Republicans) are feeling it.
UPDATE: For more hilarity, Kevin Drum weighs in on Gerson too.
UPDATE II: BooMan piles on. This is getting fun!