[Winston Churchill, describing Soviet actions]
Something strange is happening in our nation's capitol. I do not understand it, but since it is of very great political importance, I feel I must at least acknowledge its existence. Let me say, to begin, that in explaining to myself the behavior of our sainted leaders, my default assumption is that they are rationally self-interested, at least subjectively. That is to say, given their goals and their beliefs about the world, however bizarre those beliefs may be [see yesterday's post], their actions should for the most part be explainable as chosen in the reasonable expectation of achieving those goals. Their goals may be execrable -- that goes without saying -- and their beliefs may be, to borrow a phrase from Hamlet, north by northwest to reality, but given those goals and beliefs, what they actually do should make a kind of subjective sense.
Now, the Congressional Republicans began Obama's presidency with the declared intention of making his presidency a failure, Their behavior for the next two years conformed quite nicely to that despicable goal. They made it quite clear that they were prepared to drive the country into a deep depression if that would sink Obama's chances for reelection. As the midterm elections approached, it was a near certainty that they were going to win control of the House, and at a minimum, diminish significantly the Democrats' majority in the Senate. This latter goal was somewhat undercut by the success of the Tea Party in nominating unelectable candidates to easily winnable seats, but nonetheless, we all knew that there would be a tectonic shift in Washington politics in the next Congress. McConnell openly declared that the primary goal of the Republicans would then be to do whatever it took to defeat Obama for reelection.
The election went pretty much as the Republicans anticipated and hoped. Obama himself described what he had suffered as a "shellacking." He went off on a foreign trip shortly after election day [as defeated presidents often do], while the mainstream media and cable bloviators excitedly gossiped about the prospects for a primary challenge to Obama and even a Palin presidency.
So what happened? First, Obama succeeded in working out a compromise with the supposedly intransigent Republicans on the continuation of the Bush tax cuts. In that bill, Obama got an extension of unemployment benefits, a one year FICA tax reduction [Social Security], and an expansion of Pell grants. Next, against all odds, and with masterful skill, he actually secured the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, which he will sign tomorrow morning [my son, Tobias, has been invited to the signing. He will not be on the dais, but if the cameras scan the audience, look for the really handsome gay man in an elegant suit.] Finally, despite the stated opposition of both Senate Republican leaders, he is poised to win the 67 votes needed for ratification of the new START treaty.
A word about this last item, for those of you who do not pay much attention to the issue of nuclear weapons control. I got my start in politics, fifty years ago, in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. I lived through the terror of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when we came within a hairsbreadth of an all-out world destroying nuclear war. I have anguished over the fate of the thousands upon thousands of nuclear warheads inadequately guarded after the breakup of the Soviet Union. To his very great credit, Obama made this is signature issue during his brief tenure as a United States Senate, and he is now poised to take a major step toward a further reduction in warheads and better inspection protocols with regard to those that remain. This may in fact be the most important thing he ever does as President.
The net result of this series of legislative victories, all of which are publicly perceived as his doing, is that Obama looks like the Comeback Kid after the election. He goes into the next Congress not knocked back on his heels by the election losses, but buoyed by a series of remarkable victories.
Here is the riddle, inside a mystery, wrapped in an enigma. The Republicans could have addressed all of these issues before the election, simply by aborting their obstructionist stalling tactics. Had Obama won these victories BEFORE the election, it would not have changed the outcome one iota. But it would have left Obama looking weak and defeated after the election, instead of resurgent and victorious. Now, it would not have taken a great deal of intelligence to see this. I mean, worrying about such things is virtually all Congressional Republicans do, aside from raising money. But they played their hand so badly that it is now quite unclear what their control of the House and increased Senate presence will get them.
I invite my readers to offer their explanations for this puzzling turn of events.