BY RICH LOWRY
Back during the 2008 Democratic primaries, Rush Limbaugh launched Operation Chaos. Four years later, President Barack Obama has embarked on Operation Humiliation.
It is coming off without a hitch.
Stage One was to dispatch his treasury secretary to Capitol Hill to make a laughable offer to Republicans on the fiscal cliff — literally. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell reported that he burst out laughing upon hearing Tim Geithner spell out the White House’s terms.
Stage Two is watching Republicans squirm and panic. Less than a week after the hilarity courtesy of Geithner, The New York Times headlined a front-page piece, “GOP Looks for Fallback to Avoid a Fiscal Standoff.”
The grand budget deal that all the talking heads say we need to prove that Washington is still functional, to vindicate the memory of Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill, etc., etc., is almost certainly not going to come off.
For a deal to happen, one of two things must be true: The White House must either want a deal, or feel that it needs a deal. You don’t have to be a hostage negotiator or a game theorist to understand that neither is the case.
Does the White House need a deal? It considers its position so strong that it probably thinks it did McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner a favor by having Geithner show up to insult them in person. He could have done it by text message.
Obama just won an election in which pretty much his only concrete agenda item was a tax increase on the rich, although the casual listener might have thought he was only talking about taxing millionaires and billionaires. Tax increases on the rich poll well, while the Republican counterdemands — entitlement cuts — don’t.
If nothing happens, tax increases go up for everyone, and all the polls show that the public is primed to blame the Republicans. That means that the president and the media will be plowing fertile ground when they paint Boehner and company as hideous extremists who hate the middle class if all rates go up at the end of the year.
So if the White House doesn’t need a deal, why would it want one? Because it is secretly spoiling to cut entitlement spending? Because Obama wakes up every morning wondering how he can cut the deficit today? Because weeks after sweeping to re-election, he is brimming over with modesty?
Obama loves to praise himself in public for his alleged courage in private discussing possible entitlement changes with Boehner during the fight over the debt ceiling. But he never says specifically what these changes were, let alone makes the case for them. He is always in favor of tough choices — in theory.
It has been rich to hear Democrats say that Republicans have to go first on entitlements, when House Republicans have passed the Paul Ryan budget twice. The president has the unique power to support any serious entitlement reform and instantly make it a matter of bipartisan consensus, because Republicans will endorse it and Democrats will grumble and go along. All the evidence is that he simply has no interest.
The Republican budget wonk and blogger Keith Hennessey carefully analyzed the numbers in the Geithner offer and figured, between the phantom savings and the new spending, it is a net spending increase. The new “balanced approach” is more taxes coupled with more spending.
The president is in a particular fever to raise tax rates, so that the Republican counteroffer of $800 billion in revenue through tightening up the tax code is dismissed out of hand. Why would the president want to increase any tax rates when the economy is still weak, and when he is said to be interested in pursuing tax reform next year that will presumably cut them right back down again?
It doesn’t make sense as economics or policy. It does as the triumphant finale of Operation Humiliation.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.