Don’t Count the Grand Bargain Out
Yes, We Klain! The White House says there’s not much on President Obama’s 2012 pre-election legislative agenda beyond an extension of the payroll tax cut, leading to the conventional expectation that very little will happen in Congress this year. Comes now veteran Dem aide Ron Klain to suggest this CW is wrong: At some point, previously gridlockish Republican legislators may decide that its in their interest to start passing things that actually have a chance of being signed into law. The analogy is to 1996, when Newt Gingrich finally decided to pass a welfare reform bill that Bill Clinton might sign, even though that deprived GOP presidential candidate of a big potential issue (i.e. that Clinton hadn’t reformed welfare as promised).
I hadn’t thought of the 1996 comparison, but Klain may be eerily prescient: Big legislation often gets passed even when different parties control the various branches of government. The key is that incumbents from both parties have to start worrying that they’ll lose if they don’t produce anything. There’s an added incentive for GOPs this year, in that Mitch McConnell has hopes of regaining control of the Senate. If concludes it will help achieve that goal to, say, actuallycut a deal to enact an energy bill, don’t bet against it.
Quibbles: a) Klain argues Obama is helping McConnell reach this fateful decision point by successfully running against the “do-nothing” Congress. Meanwhile, the Republicans “lost enthusiasm for their emerging [presidential] nominee,” the way they lost enthusiasm for Bob Dole in ’96. I don’t remember that, by the beginning of 1996, Clinton’s “do-nothing” charge was all that salient. He was buoyed mainly by the beginning of a great economic boom, and secondarily by the (recently reconfirmed) conclusion that Gingrich was an unlikeable egomaniac who wanted to cut back the popular Medicare program. Nor is there much evidence that Obama’s anti-Congress campaign is scoring as many” points” as Klain seems to think it is. A look at the President’s approval rating suggests the opposite.
But you don’t need Obama’s campaign to be successful for Klain’s scenario to play out. All you need is for McConnell and Boehner to think their Congressional candidates will benefit from some actual achievements. That could happen if Obama is on top in the polls, or if Romney is on top in the polls. It’s perfectly possible that McConnell will worry that voters are poised to retaliate against both Obama and do-nothing GOP Senators, for example.
Which brings us to b): Why does Klain think the bipartisan legislation Congress sends Obama will be legislation Obama wants. In 1996, welfare reform was hugely popular. It wasn’t completely clear that Clinton would sign the fairly tough bill the GOPs planned to send him–but Clinton had at least campaigned on a promise to “end welfare as we know it.” Isn’t it likely, this time around, that Republicans will send Obama bills that just enough Dem senators will support but that he’ll be highly reluctant to sign–most obviously, legislation to speed the Keystone XL pipeline or mandate an “e-Verify” check to prevent the hiring of illegal immigrants. He may sign anyway to deprive the GOPs of an issue, and the result will be a legislative achievement. But not one from the White House wish list.
Klain’s list of possible laws–“energy policy, fiscal policy and job-creation initiatives”–isn’t very specific. One obvious big candidate that Obama might actually want is the fabled, Moby Dickish Grand Bargain of spending cuts and revenue increases (perhaps mainly through loophole-closing tax reform). It’s popular. Obama has made it clear he’d like to get it. Republicans would have a real achievement, however worthy or unworthy, to boast about. What you’d expect Republicans to do, though–at least if the welfare analogy holds–is to only agree to send Obama a bill that was so long on cuts and short on millionare-taxation that he will be highly tempted to veto it. Either way, a big national debate over a Grand Bargainish bill, with Obama defending tax increases and government spending, seems like one Republicans would love to have going into the election. They’ve won that debate before.
Of course, House and Senate Dems wouldn’t happy with the idea of passing such a bill, especially if it contains cuts in Medicare of the sort Dems are planning to run against. But House and Senate Dems didn’t like the 1996 welfare reform either. That didn’t mean they could stop it.
I think this analysis is right. Let me know in the comments if it isn’t.