Nobody Knows Anything

If this is true, then the dichotomy that I suggested last week, viz., Obama is either a Democrat and a moron or a Republican and a genius, is still valid:

A Congressional aide briefed on ongoing negotiations between House Speaker John Boehner and President Obama says the two principals may be nearing a “grand bargain” to raise the debt limit which would contain large, set-in-stone spending cuts but only the possibility of future revenue increases.

“All cuts,” the aide said. “Maybe revenues some time in the future.”

Essentially, this would represent a complete cave to the Republican agenda.  And for that reason, I’m not persuaded that it is true.  Even the 11-dimensional chess master himself can’t get away with that, assuming that he wanted to.

But the New York Times, Politico, the Washington Post, and several other outlets appear to have confirmed that something is up.  The White House has issued a denial, but even with that, there is some wiggle room:  White House communications director Dan Pfeffer says, “Anyone reporting a $3 trillion deal without revenues is incorrect. POTUS believes we need a balanced approach that includes revenues.”  Okay, then how about a $4 trillion deal without revenues?  Or a $2.5 trillion deal without revenues.  Oh yes, POTUS believes that we need revenues, but he believed in a public option, too.  It appears as if the White House has broached the idea to Senate Democrats, and left Capitol Hill with its tail between its legs.

Maybe the whole thing is an elaborate fake-out, and after trying every possible combination, Obama will decide to save the country’s credit by invoking the Constitution and blowing through the debt limit.

But maybe it’s best to remember William Goldman’s law: Nobody Knows Anything.  And also Harry Truman’s: give the people a choice between a Republican and a Republican, they’ll choose a Republican every time.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

28 thoughts on “Nobody Knows Anything”

  1. Although I do think the president is pretty good at the job, technically speaking, does this all strike anyone else as being a depressing and embarrassing way to do business? Sneaking around and cheating on your own party? Or, just pretending you are, as if somehow that’s better? WTF?

    I think the Dems should just say, we want a deal that’s 75% revenues (starting in a couple years) and 25% cuts, or *we’re* going to go home. Why the bleep are we always pretending to be the grownups? It gets us exactly nowhere.

    And news flash: American voters may often fall for a flashy line, but on the whole, they can tell when they’re being had. This would not be good for anyone.

  2. Jonathan, your propensity for panic in the face of every rumor is quite impressive. It’s not useful, mind you, but it is impressive.

  3. Baselines are crucial: a bill that did not extend the Bush tax cuts for the rich would not, technically, be a tax increase. Neither would a bill that did not extend the AMT.

    Jonathan keeps ignoring the third hypothesis: that Obama is helping Boehner sell revenue increases to the lunatics in his caucus, or alternatively making the Republicans the clear black hats if the thing goes down.

  4. Yes, yes but all I know is if the dude signs off on cuts to my mom’s and my sister’s SS and/or Medicare I am not going to be happy. He said he could live with being a one term president and I have no doubt that will be the result if he gives away the store on this one.

  5. This president has done such a good job of convincing strong Democrats that he cannot be trusted so that whenever anything ambiguous crops up we can not trust him. As has been demonstrated time and again, he does not have pour backs – but we are criticized for being less than impressed. Things might be different if his concern for making the right wing feel good was equaled with a concern to make the progressives feel good on an economic issue.

    So far I think it is clear that he has not really done more than a competent corporate CEO who is not a bigot. That’s better than his predecessor, but it is not being a servant or leader of the people as a whole.

  6. Professor Zasloff- “Maybe … Obama will decide to save the country’s credit by invoking the Constitution and blowing through the debt limit.”

    Stuff like this makes you look naïve. Do you really think that the Treasury, if funds got short, would default on bond payments so it could keep on paying out Social Security checks etc.?

    Well, evidently nobody else believes it. T-bonds’ still sell at interest rates so low as to imply zero credit risk.

  7. “Baselines are crucial: a bill that did not extend the Bush tax cuts for the rich would not, technically, be a tax increase. Neither would a bill that did not extend the AMT.

    Jonathan keeps ignoring the third hypothesis: that Obama is helping Boehner sell revenue increases to the lunatics in his caucus, or alternatively making the Republicans the clear black hats if the thing goes down.”

    Mark, I really can’t believe you’re saying this. On the first point, Obama would then be giving the Republicans $3 trillion of cuts for exactly nothing, because the Bush tax cuts will expire anyway. If Obama wins next year, then he can let the whole fetid thing expire, and propose his OWN middle-class tax cut; if he loses, President Bachmann will just renew Bush tax cuts for the rich. Where’s the great negotiating in that?

    And your “third hypothesis” essentially boils down to: “Obama knows what he’s doing because when the economy tanks, David Brooks and Ruth Marcus will say that he’s the good guy.” It’s essentially campaigning to Beltway reporters, who will always find ways to recycle GOP talking points. THAT’s the genius political strategy for next year?

    @Passing BY: No. Just the opposite. He will keep issuing debt on the grounds that no matter what he does, he will be violating the Constitution (either impounding or violating the debt ceiling), and he will maintain financial sanity rather than insanity. But I doubt Obama would do that; it wouldn’t be bipartisan enough.

  8. I think Lawrence Tribe has made a pretty convincing argument that the 14th Amendment isn’t and never was a solution to this “problem”: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/08/opinion/08tribe.html?_r=1

    Basically, the Executive Branch doesn’t have the authority to issue debt without the approval of Congress even if Congress is rife with jackasses. I don’t like that conclusion but I think it’s nonetheless true. On the other hand, I haven’t seen a convincing argument why the ‘trillion dollar coin’ clause couldn’t be used. Again, not that Obama would ever use it.

  9. Obama’s political style is deeply (and excessively) influenced by hia time in the Senate. He’s always asking, what can I get Congress to do? Steve Benen lays out the surprising arithmet ic on votes. There are a sufficient number of GOP flat-earthers who will not vote for an increase in the debt ceiling come what may, and welcome the prospect of an instantly balanced zombie budget. This means that any deal has to secure Democratic votes in both House and Senate. The bottom line for even Blue Dogs is some tax increases.

    But if you add Blue Dog votes this way, Boehner loses more votes into the crazy Bachmann/deMint camp. Obama, I infer, is playing to split the Congressional GOP. It’s also quite posible that there is no majority coalition, and it will have to be platinum coins or geithner scrip or just declaring the limit unconstituttional.

  10. If Obama is trying to do something tricky, I agree with Zasloff that our MSM is in no appropriate condition for it to work.

    And even if it were, I doubt if ordinary people are even paying attention to this. They definitely won’t care by next fall. Jobs jobs jobs. Or maybe some idiot will attack us again. But it won’t be this.

    And I don’t believe this line that getting our deficit problem in order will allow the government to do big things again. That’s a pipe dream unless we take back both houses again. Which is an awful lot to bank on.

  11. Maybe Obama really is like a zen chess master, playing the long game, and all that jazz. I happen to agree with Jonathan Zasloff on this because I don’t see what we’re getting from the Republicans in exchange for trashing the social safety net and destroying our chances in 2012. But merits aside, I can’t help noticing one thing. There is an advantage to pressuring Obama from the left. Consider the examples of the homosexuals and the bankers. From the very start of the Obama presidency, and until quite recently, the goals the homosexuals sought to advance were basically ignored and they were told “long game” “Obama’s doing the best he can but the Republicans are crazy”. Basically, be patient because the time isn’t right yet. Now, for a long time the homosexual groups, who were generally strong supporters of Obama, accepted that and got nothing. Some nice speeches but nothing tangible in terms of action on their issues.

    But my impression is that about a year ago there was a distinct change by homosexual groups in both tone and approach. Gone was “well, okay, we’ll wait our turn because hopey-changey is the main thing” and in its place was a very militant approach of pressing for their demands even if that meant that Obama would be a one-term president. No matter what the administration said their response was always the same. We don’t care about the long game. We don’t care about the Republicans or or Sarah Palin or the budget or your reelection. We don’t care about anything except DOMA and gays in military. At which point, it’s my perception that the administration realized that they had to start delivering on what the gays wanted and consequently Obama started to push for integration in the military, repeal of DOMA, same sex marriage.

    Now, I appreciate that to some extent this can work because the gays have been intensely focused on their issues and have made it clear that their issues are the only ones that matter to them, so they’re not taking a back seat to somebody else’s hostages. Same thing with the bankers. They slapped Obama around, made it clear that he’d better do as he’s told or no money for reelection. Guess what? No BS long game for the banker—Obama’s delivering for them like Pizza Man. That’s why I think it’s instructive that there are only two group that have really gotten anything out of Obama thus far: Gays and bankers. And I think they got Obama to move on their issues because they took a hard line. Transformational, bipartisan presidency? Long game? Sarah Palin? Don’t care. Won’t work. Give us what we want right now or you’re dead to us. And Obama gave them what they wanted. And they’ve kept the pressure up.

    I think liberals need to look at what works. We’ve been buying “I’ve got this” and “long game” and Zen chess master for too long. I think it is past time to lay down some markers. We need to start saying what we want— in the debt limit negotiations, in the budget, in ending some of these wars, everything. And I think we need to say to Obama: Either you start delivering for us or you are a one-termer. Period. Don’t care anymore about anything except what we want. For starters, we need to draw a line around medicare and social security and tell him that if he puts them on the table again, we’re going to make sure he’s a one-termer. He wants to help the Republicans kill the hostages, fine, but that isn’t going to change anything. If he’s weak on the social safety net, if he puts the things that are important to liberals on the table, then we walk away and try to find some other way to save the hostages. If he doesn’t start delivering, he needs to start picking out where to build the Obama library because liberals are going to walk away (and especially if the Republican nominee is somebody who seems like he might be interested in having our money and support in return for the promises followed by tangible results).

    Obviously, that’s much easier for the gays and bankers to say because they really do value their issues so highly that there isn’t anything that Obama or the Republicans could do to anybody that would matter to them more than their issues. Still, liberals have gone along with this long game stuff and we’ve gotten nowhere. By contrast, these other groups have taken a very hard line—they’re really ratcheted up the pressure—and Obama has delivered for them. Maybe it time to start drawing some lines.

  12. Obama’s political style is deeply (and excessively) influenced by hia time in the Senate.

    Obama’s political style is also deeply (and understandably) influenced by his time as an African-American man in the United States. Anyone who ever expected the first black man to be president to do anything other than pathologically seek compromise was deluded. If Barack Obama were at all the type to want to engage in confrontational politics, he wouldn’t be President of the United States; he would have been weeded out of the selection process because he was an angry black man long before reaching the US Senate, let alone the Oval Office.

    We all celebrated when Obama won the presidency not only because he was a Democrat, but because he represented something most of us didn’t think we’d live long enough to see. Apparently, a lot of people didn’t really think through the implications of that. Yes, the fact that he can be so conciliatory is very frustrating, but the alternative was that someone else would have won the Democratic nomination, most likely a white man.

  13. But my impression is that about a year ago there was a distinct change by homosexual groups in both tone and approach. Gone was “well, okay, we’ll wait our turn because hopey-changey is the main thing” and in its place was a very militant approach of pressing for their demands even if that meant that Obama would be a one-term president. No matter what the administration said their response was always the same. We don’t care about the long game. We don’t care about the Republicans or or Sarah Palin or the budget or your reelection. We don’t care about anything except DOMA and gays in military. At which point, it’s my perception that the administration realized that they had to start delivering on what the gays wanted and consequently Obama started to push for integration in the military, repeal of DOMA, same sex marriage.

    Correlation doesn’t equal causation. On DADT, Obama had told everyone what his timeline was all along, and he continued to play it out. It just so happened that this meant that the ball started rolling in Congress shortly after you date gay activist groups becoming more confrontational. I also think that you’re wrong, because I remember a bunch of gay rights groups being hostile from the word go.

  14. I think Jonathan has once again let his imagination carry him away. It’s never good to take the vague outlines of rumors in politics as true. Yet here Jonathan is in hysterics and willing to tar-and-feather Obama over the latest in an infinite series of debt ceiling rumors–and one which the White House denies anyway.

    It’s fine to try to publicly push politicians toward certain goals, through blog posts, letters and emails to them, etc. (Whether any of this works is another story.) But it looks amateurish to panic every time a rumor comes out–which the Left does far too often, unfortunately. I’m not necessarily as convinced as Mark Kleiman that Obama’s “got this.” But until the details of a deal are released, I’m willing to suspend judgment. As rational people should.

  15. Well, I don’t think the Bush cuts extension looks any better now than it did x months ago, so I’m not sure about this “long game” business. How bleeping long is long? When we’re all dead?
    But you’re right, we won’t know for sure about this particular outrage until we see what they come up with.

  16. For those who believe we need to wait and see, I’ve got a question: If this process produced a cut-to-revenue ratio of 4-1, would you be satisfied? I wouldn’t – I think taxes need to go up from the current point. I think 4-1 is grossly insufficient, and that Obama won’t even push that hard of a bargain.

    Now I realize that being right too quickly is the mark of the Unserious and the Shrill, but what sort of deal would you find acceptable?

    Me, I think what’s already happened – Obama’s choice to play chicken with the full faith and credit of the United States – is reprehensible. He’d have to get a pretty darn good deal to make it acceptable, and there’s no evidence that he’s even trying to get what I would consider a good deal. How about you?

  17. I agree. Save your outrage. You may need it to get really, really, really outraged when the details finally surface.

    What really gets me is that this whole drama plasters over the fact that we should be talking about jobs and stimulus now not deficit reduction!

  18. The thing about waiting-and-seeing is that it allows Obama’s defenders to keep moving the bar. This is the place he’s decided to make his big play, his line in the sand, and what’s he doing it for? A massive stimulus effort? An 80/20 revenue/cuts split for deficit reduction?

    Apparently not (though we should wait and see)! Zasloff thinks he can see how it’s shaping up. Others say he can’t possibly. I just want to know: What outcome would render Zasloff’s gripes inappropriate?

  19. Agree with Mitch. Politicians may be bad people, they may be crazy, they may be badly crazy, but every one of them can count votes. As long as there’s nothing Obama can do to lose our votes (and our volunteer support), there’s nothing we can get from him. He’s acted as if he understood this since January 2009, but many liberals act like they still don’t get it.

    I’m inclined to let him know sooner, rather than later, than proposing Medicare and Social Security cuts means we walk. There’s going to be intense pressure on Congressional Democrats to pass whatever deal he can produce, no matter how bad it is, and their history indicates they’ll do it no matter how many times they’ve promised they won’t.

  20. The question is, “How can we best show Obamna that we are waling away?” I’ve written to various Democratic organizations and get useless form letters back thanking me. The only place I know that is actively pushing back is FireDogLake (I know, I know, they’re not serious, but I think they are a hell of a lot more serious than Mark). Jonathan has laid out a position that is consistent with the reality Obama is presenting, and each time, there has been the suggestion that he isn’t serious from Makr, from Matt and from others. The thing most troubling is that waiting for 2012 – it’s too late, This is happening now, not in Nov 2012. There is no outcome that I can accept currently being discussed.

    We have a president with a high school understanding of economics, trying to fix our economy as though it is a single family wrangling around the kitchen table – I maintain that he got his economics from his grandmother, an official in a small town bank. I no longer believe that he is an incompetent politician – rather he is remarkably competent, just a Republican who to the right of Reagan. Voting for this Democrat in order to keep liberals on the Supreme Court is no longer sufficient – there will be too little left if all we do is save the Supreme Court (and what do you bet his next nomination is less acceptable – in the name of bi-partisanship).

    What to do immediately? Demand a clean vote on the debt ceiling (it won’t matter, I strongly suspect that the die is cast and what we’re seeing is wrangling over the details). The Democrats in the Senate won’t be able to do anything, mad as they may be.

    What to do long run – after Aug. 2? I wish I knew, but it damn well better be something more than “I won’t vote for you next Nov.

    Yeah… “Chill, I’ve got this.” He sure does. I think “Chill” really means something else having to do with how one stands, and not “Stand up straight.”

  21. “Voting for this Democrat in order to keep liberals on the Supreme Court is no longer sufficient.” Voting for this Democrat is isn’t just insufficient, it’s counterproductive. Voting for this Democrat makes any outcome desirable by liberals less likely.

  22. @ J. Michael Neal: My memory of Obama’s avowed timeframe is a bit different from yours. There were always lots of things he said to make the gays think he was with them on DADT but the only timeframe I ever heard was basically “when the time is right”. Which apparently meant whenever other people were ready to take the political risks and do the heavy lifting because (as you correctly note) he sent nothing to the Congress on either DADT or DOMA. He also did nothing substantive within the executive branch for the gays until they basically gave him an ultimatum. The real timeframe was when they told him he needed to deliver for them right now or they’d walk away. That’s when he started to come across for them.

    Liberals need to see what the gays did and recognize that is the only way we are every going to get anything from Obama. As long as there’s nothing he could do to lose our votes and our support, we will get nothing from him except speeches. The long game is for suckers.

    @ Matt: If you wait for Obama’s deal to be released then the question becomes what are your choices at that point? Isn’t it better to let Obama know what we want now while it’s still (remotely) possible to influence his actions rather than after it’s a done deal and the Democrats are told by President Obama that the responsibly for avoiding financial Armageddon is now on them because the always reasonable Republicans have agreed with him about what needs to be done?

    I would also point out that at this point there is ample reason for liberals to believe that Obama is not, in fact, secretly one of us. He has governed well to the right of Richard Nixon and, indeed, his record of fighting for liberal goals pales next to Nixon’s efforts on the environment and the social safety net. This is not something I would ever have expected to say about a Democratic president.

    What’s more, it is now very clear that he wants these cuts just as much as do the Republicans. He was offered a clean debt limit bill and instead of declaring victory and shifting the burden to the Republican leadership to round up the votes, he rejected the clean bill and continued to say that massive cuts to the social safety net are necessary. Trashing social security, medicare and the rest of the social safety net aren’t just Republican goals anymore—they are the goals of the man whose reelection we are expected to support.

  23. Don wrote, “As long as there’s nothing Obama can do to lose our votes (and our volunteer support)…”

    It’s a very difficult problem, really. In the long run, we (could) expend energy and build something. In the short run, the choice between not voting for Obama (and giving a win to someone unquestionably worse) and voting for Obama (and thus continuing to be taken granted) is a bad position to be in.

    _However_, that being said, we _can_ shift our support outside the voting booth. I.e., not give money or time to Obama. I’m moving increasingly in the direction of only giving money to Democratic candidates who are fairly liberal and who have a shot at winning.

  24. Just for a bit of perspective, Clinton wasn’t very left either. I think his heart was in the right place, and he’s very smart, and he’s very centrist. Less than our current guy, but still, overall, very very good for business. Which isn’t a bad thing at all, but what about the rest of us? When the dust settled, middle and lower income people weren’t much better off from him, imo. Loose regulations, seriously hostile welfare “reform” (we still don’t know what happened to those people because no one wanted to know), and “free” trade. Wow, thanks soooo much. In exchange, FMLA and (a bigger?) EITC. Nice, but chump change.

    So, we need a primary challenger, and a smart one this time who will get the BLEEP off the stage when the time is right. No, it is not okay to vote for a Republican for president until the GOP stops being insane. They kill too many Americans and too many foreigners with their wars.

    We should be able to pull this off. Seriously, people.

  25. Liberal, there is no way to win in the long run if you aren’t willing to lose in the short run.

  26. Don,

    The problem is that we can scream all we want that the Dems should pay attention to “us,” and they won’t necessarily do so, since they’re listening to corporate money.

    AFAICT there are two things that lead to power in politics: (1) money, and (2) organized, collaborative effort. Holding our votes says we’re not going to help the centrist/corporatist Dems, but it does nothing to establish much power of our own.

  27. Liberal, did I say you should wait for the Democrats to embrace you? The Democrats represent corporations. Liberals need their own party, and need to tell the Democratic Party goodbye. This will of course make both liberals and (if there are lots of liberals) the Democrats lose in the short run. But that’s how you establish your own power base.

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