Obama and the tax deal – triangulating or governing?

A friend and I got into a heated discussion the other day about whether Obama had fought hard enough for the Democratic agenda in the tax deal he negotiated with the Republicans. My friend, really angry, said he hadn’t. He also said he thought Obama should have fought harder for a single-payer health care plan.

Our discussion was a microcosm of the debate raging among Democrats throughout the country. The liberal-left side of the debate says Obama has no principles and isn’t willing (or tough enough) to fight for anything. I’m on the other side. Compromise – important even after winning the White House and Congress in 2008 because of the broad range of views among Democrats – became critical when Democrats lost their filibuster-proof majority in the Senate last January. And it will be even more so going forward, given Democrats’ weakened position in both houses since November.

I view Obama’s tax compromise as a good and pragmatic way to put what happens to the expiring tax cuts behind us in the hope of getting the New START treaty, repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and maybe even the DREAM Act passed in the lame-duck session.

Matt Bai framed the debate in the context of triangulation vs. governing in his insightful piece in today’s New York Times titled “Is ‘Triangulation’ Just Another Word for the Politics of the Possible?” when he asked, “Is President Obama himself a triangulator? Has he become the kind of compromiser he once disdained? Perhaps the better question might be: So what if he has?”

“Again and again, we have Democratic presidents who say, ‘Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the better,’ and ‘This is the best I can do,’ ” says Robert Reich, the liberal economist and former labor secretary under Mr. Clinton. “And over and over we have Republican presidents who say, ‘I am going to hold out for my principles.’”

In this more expansive sense of the epithet, one can reasonably tag Mr. Obama as a triangulator. In striking his tax deal — which extended cuts for the highest income levels and reinstated the estate tax at a much lower rate than sought by liberals, while also extending unemployment benefits and establishing a new payroll tax holiday — Mr. Obama effectively said that the perfect could not be the enemy of the better, and that this was the best he could do.

The problem with this definition of triangulation, though, is that it comes awfully close to an indictment of governing, generally. Some political compromises, of course, are craven or even disastrous; there’s a reason that the words “appeasement” and “Yalta” remain part of the lexicon. But to disdain pragmatic compromise is to become unyielding and self-satisfied in the service of theory, rather than creative in the service of your agenda. …

Perhaps Mr. Obama could have won a more progressive resolution to the tax-cut debate had he and Congressional Democrats taken up the issue earlier this year, when the deadline wasn’t so close and when the president could have mounted a sustained public campaign. But as it stands, the deal Mr. Obama got, while no one’s idea of perfect, will pump hundreds of billions of dollars in consumer and business tax breaks into a languishing economy, while also aiding the unemployed and easing the tax burden on a strained middle class.

On the other hand, had Mr. Obama held the line on principle and allowed all the cuts to expire, as some Democrats would have preferred, the public debate in January would most likely have come down to which of the two parties was responsible for letting middle-class taxes rise during a recession. It’s an argument that Democrats, historically vulnerable on taxes and already fending off charges of expanding government, would probably have lost.

Such compromises, ideal or not, are the building blocks of responsible governance. If that makes Mr. Obama some kind of triangulator, then it could also make him a successful president.

My friend Greg Hudson also thinks the tax compromise was the right thing to do, noting the various stimulus measures Obama got in return. In his excellent post today titled “Obama-GOP Tax Deal Okay for Now–But Just for Now” Greg writes:

… now is not the time to advance a position on principle that runs the risk of stoking unnecessarily class antagonisms by unwisely setting up “taxing the rich” as a deal killer. Especially when the definition of rich does not resonate with a lot of professionals and small businessmen. Surely the Dems have got to be more practical than that–especially if they have any hope of bi-partisan work accomplishing anything for the country in the next congress.

No, too many Dems either failed to see the deal in the right light or, more likely, were too full of themselves, self-righteous or spiteful to deign to compromise with the Republicans. In the right light, this whole legislative package should be seen primarily as a kind of “stimulus” package–if not to add federal stimulus, at least not to take it away. That, I believe, was Obama’s objective, and it appears he got the right deal done–despite many Democrats, including the abstaining lame-duck Speaker Pelosi. In the end, she just is who she is: a reliable, estimable social advocate and champion of the Democratic left wing, but not an effective leader in the difficult, often unsatisfying work of managing incremental legislative progress in a negotiated bi-partisan process.

Between now and 2012, Democrats are going to have to learn to appreciate the need for compromise and – as Greg says – the art of “managing incremental legislative progress in a negotiated bi-partisan process.”

Call it triangulation if you will, but unless they do, Obama is sure to lose the next election.

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