Heroes, sidekicks do what Obama can’t
AS THE DUST settles from the debt ceiling battle, hindsight suggests that President Obama might have benefited from an early screening of the Clint Eastwood movie “Kelly’s Heroes.’’ There, he might have found inspiration. In the penultimate scene, Don Rickles, playing a wounded GI, assesses the challenge of stealing gold bars from a bank guarded by a menacing tank. “Make a deal,’’ comes Rickles’s sly advice. “A DEAL deal! Maybe the guy’s a Republican.’’
Big or small, that’s exactly what this debt fight was always about - cutting a deal. The president had an opportunity to strike big with a high-profile summit, but found playing politics was more attractive than saying yes. Love them or hate them, successful budget summits were legacy moments for Presidents Clinton in 1997 and Bush in 1990. Unfortunately for Obama, recognizing he’s in a negotiation and negotiating effectively are two very different things.
Raising the debt limit is “must pass’’ legislation - Republicans’ best chance to address America’s unsustainable budget deficits. But after the House passed a budget in April, deficit negotiations quickly lost any semblance of discipline. When Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad attempted to move forward, he was undercut by the “Gang of Six.’’ Committee Democrats feared taking tough votes when a bipartisan deal might be just around the corner.
Then the Gang was promptly undercut by talks led by Vice President Joe Biden. A few weeks later, Biden was undercut by the president’s call for a White House summit.
Just as a deal was about to be announced, the president was undercut by the reappearance of the Gang of Six. The senators endorsed bigger tax increases than his own plan, so the president changed his tune. His demand for additional taxes brought the talks down.
Battle lines were drawn and, as in the movies, congressional stars filled their roles well. Speaker John Boehner played the grizzled veteran. He presides over an unruly caucus, but was willing to accept $800 billion in revenue increases if the president had only said yes. At one point even the Washington Post called him “the adult in the room.’’
By comparison, Harry Reid’s arsenal consists of popguns and spitballs. His majority falls short of the 60 needed for Senate passage, and the 23 Democratic Senate seats up in 2012 made for a skittish group. He never backed away from the fight, but for all the posturing, Reid’s plan always lacked one thing - the votes needed to pass.
As minority leaders, Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell played their sidekick roles with dignity. Pelosi’s rhetorical barbs are designed to keep the left from revolting, but McConnell’s steady hand and Republican votes would be essential to get anything through the Senate.
Intentional or not, the president’s failures amplified the disorganized feeling of the negotiations. The budget he submitted in March increased spending and taxes and ignored the unsustainable entitlement growth. It was rejected by the Senate 97 to 0.
After the House passed a budget, the president invited House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan to sit in the front row of a national speech, then insulted him without offering any concrete ideas of his own. On the verge of a bipartisan agreement 10 days ago, he changed his mind and insisted on additional tax increases. Then with the clock ticking, he sent his chief of staff out with a veto bluff.
Throughout it all, the president ran frantically to the microphones before and after every White House session. He scolded and postured, assuming the role of a jilted prom date. These are not the actions of a leader. These are the actions of a novice; of someone worried about reelection; of someone who was too naive to acknowledge the seriousness of debt ceiling votes when he had the chance as a senator.
Boehner’s success made life easier for Harry Reid: Both the House plan and his own could then face the same fate on the Senate floor – failure. That opened the door to a final flurry of negotiations.
In the film, Eastwood’s “heroes” get the job done while their captain is on leave. He returns from Paris just in time to get credit for the valuable ground they’ve won. Obama didn’t go to Paris, but McConnell’s insistence on his return helps seal House Democratic votes needed to pass a final agreement.
It hasn’t been pretty; tough negotiations never are. But it’ll be a deal - a DEAL deal. And maybe it makes the next one a little easier.
John E. Sununu, a regular Globe contributor, is a former US senator from New Hampshire.