Obama’s Hollow Gauntlet

Mickey Kaus Columnist
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Was Obama’s veto pledge fake macho posturing? Here it is:

I will not support any plan that puts all the burden for closing our deficit on ordinary Americans. And I will veto any bill that changes benefits for those who rely on Medicare but does not raise serious revenues by asking the wealthiest Americans or biggest corporations to pay their fair share. We are not going to have a one-sided deal that hurts the folks who are most vulnerable.

Emphasis on potential Clintonian loopholes added!

a) It depends on what the meaning of “benefit” is. Obama could argue that giving his Independent Payment Advisory Board greater authority to not pay for certain treatments isn’t really a denial of “benefits”–you’re only guaranteed the treatments the IPAB approves! That’s the “benefit.”

b) Is raising Medicare premiums a “change” in benefits? Or does it just require people to pay more for those benefits? On the latter theory, even across the board increases in Medicare premiums (except maybe on the “folks who are most vulnerable”) wouldn’t necessarily trigger a veto.

c) Obama could also argue that even cutting what are inarguably “benefits” doesn’t trigger the veto, at least if we’re talking about the benefits going to the affluent–since they don’t really “rely on” Medicare, do they? They could pay the bills themselves. So means-testing benefits is still in–even if there’s no tax hike on the rich.

There’s been some speculation that Obama’s veto threat, if he holds to it, makes the work of the elite deficit-reducing “supercommittee” impossible–it “guarantees that the supercommittee’s recommendations will not be approved.”  Since Republicans aren’t going to agree on raising “serious revenues” from the wealthy, the argument goes, they aren’t going to get Medicare cuts past Obama and nothing substantial will get done.

People who think this* should read the statement more closely. There is lots of room for substantial Medicare cuts that won’t trigger a veto, even if they aren’t accompanied by  revenue increases–as long as the cuts aren’t structured so clumsily as to directly cut “benefits” for the non-affluent.

That also means Obama hasn’t chosen a Trumanesque “run against Congress” strategy over a statesmanlike “grand bargain with Boehner” strategy. He’s still trying to keep both strategies in play. I suspect he still wants a grand bargain even if he gets stiffed on his tax increases on the rich. Monday’s speech looks like mostly a show to please the left. ** The loopholes give it away. …


* — This means you, David Brooks.

**–Greg Sargent argues that Obama’s tax-the-rich stand is also designed to appeal to independents. That may be true. But he could push for tax increases without a veto threat. The macho veto posture seems specifically designed to answer a charge of insufficient combativeness (and preemptive compromising, etc.) that seems to come more from the left. …

Mickey Kaus