The one-nation Tory

Barack Obama’s defensive skills match his conservative convictions.

This week’s events should put paid to suspicions that Obama has lost his political skills. [Update: Mickey Kaus holds out. Sigh.] The stiffing of John Boehner over the budget cuts is beautiful politics. (The deal is still lousy policy; but the argument that what the US and world economy needs is bigger deficits just now was lost a while ago.) Choosing to stand and fight the Republicans over Medicare and tax cuts for the rich (junior National Treasure Ezra Klein again) did not require great insight. Ryan’s hubris and overreach was patent from the first, and the two policies are for good reason very unpopular, but it was very well done. The White House even managed progressive expectations nicely, hinting in advance at a sellout based on the Bowles-Simpson plan, so that Obama’s robust defence of the liberal heritage came as a relief to progressives.

In Main Street, the budget deal plays as a statesmanlike bipartisan first step to tackle the deficit bogeyman. Beltway insiders know better: on close inspection, the $38bn of headline cuts turns into a reduction of outlays in 2011 of $352m: statistical noise. (That said, the small cuts of $20-25 bn over 10 years are sadly well targeted on GOP shibboleths like foreign aid and high-speed rail.) So John Boehner was played for a sucker, and his party knows it. The Tea Partiers in the House GOP are furious, with reason. At the same time, the economic modelling John Paul Ryan relied on to bolster his radical plan stands revealed as a fraud. Looking scary is one thing; looking like bumbling amateurs another.

They must now be wondering hard why President Obama is inviting them to negotiate conditions for raising the debt ceiling (h/t Kevin Drum). Where’s the hidden trap?

Well, suppose they try some culture-war rider, eliminating funding for Planned Parenthood or reinstating DADT. The tea partiers lost over these issues on the budget deal; why should they do any better in the debt ceiling context, with Wall Street for once firmly on the side of common sense? Suppose they try pushing the Ryan plan, defunding Medicare. Two lunacies tied together are twice as toxic as one. There is a serious deficit-reduction plan now on the table – Obama’s; designed to hurt them. They don’t want to buy into that. What can the GOP really hope to secure beyond a photo-op bipartisan endorsement of Evil Deficit platitudes?

Barack Obama’s underlying political convictions are now pretty clear. His preference for defence, playing off the back foot, is not just tactical. By conviction, he’s a Disraelian one-nation conservative. The position is more common in Europe than the USA. Nominally socialist politicians like Willy Brandt, Gordon Brown and François Mitterrand stood essentially for defending the status quo, the welfare state built by more radical predecessors like Léon Blum or Nye Bevan – with major contributions from farsighted true conservatives like Charles de Gaulle, Neville Chamberlain, Bismarck, de Gasperi, and even Pétain. Obama similarly stands for defending the liberal heritage of Roosevelt and Johnson.

There are two complications with this picture. One is the absence of the common small-c conservative love of the physical heritage, of tended landscape, harmonious lived-in cityscapes and pristine wilderness. Obama is cerebrally environmentalist, but environmental concerns are clearly a long way down his core priorities. Tough on the climate.

The other puzzle is why he risked so much to pass a health care reform (unsurprisingly, on Rockefeller Republican lines). Since it did pass, he will fight for it as his great contribution to the liberal legacy. I suggest accident. John Edwards and Hillary Clinton made it the centrepiece of the Democratic platform in 2008; in 2010 Nancy Pelosi persuaded him to fight for the full reform after Scott Brown’s election, perhaps on the (surely correct) calculation that retreating to a token reform would damage his credibility beyond repair.

Oh, and another group got shafted on Wednesday:

We will cut spending on prescription drugs by using Medicare’s purchasing power to drive greater efficiency and speed generic brands of medicine onto the market.

The pharmaceutical industry’s opposition to health reform was bought off in 2009, and sure enough the Affordable Care Act did not include a squeeze on drug prices. But surprise, surprise, we now have a new situation! And drug prices are back on the table. Big Pharma’s natural allies in the GOP have created the deficit panic, so it will be harder and riskier for them to help. Contrariwise, ACA does include a lot of technical machinery – EMR, the Medicare Independent Payment Advisory Board, incentives for payment by results and evidence-based practice – that will throw an ever brighter searchlight on the scope for savings. So the lobbyists have it all to do again.

It won’t end with drugs. Remember the annual doc fix? Another time bomb, this time for inflated medical wages. The mechanism is ideal for another gradual squeeze. Finally Obama’s slide-rule commissars will come for the hospitals and testing labs.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

13 thoughts on “The one-nation Tory”

  1. What is needed here is this message absent the inside baseball-speak. Shortened and sprinkled with several elevator phrases to pass around. Maybe an executive summary for reg’lur folk. I play chess with a defensive idea, waiting to counterattack after an initial attack is repelled. Maybe more people need to have this explained, as in politics it is not typical to play defense (defence) first, and lots of folks (me included) would like to see more hard hits at the blue line.

  2. The last line really truly doesn’t work in an American political context, even as a joke.

  3. Thanks for the insight on one-nation conservatism — does sound like Obama. The sport technique that I’ve always liked as applied to Obama’s politics is rope-a-dope. It came up during the campaign — he would be getting pummelled on an issue, looking like he couldn’t get ahead of it, then pick the right moment to come off the ropes with a short but well executed flurry. It’s of course very risky. This maybe carrying the boxing analogy too far, but rope-a-dope works best against a wild-punching brawler type that telegraphs his punches. At least somewhat comparable to the tea party-infected Republicans.

  4. Dan: perhaps I should explain the cricket metaphor. The batsman must stand behind the crease (a line on the grass in front of the wicket) when the ball is released by the bowler. But he (or she – there is high-class women’s cricket) is free to move forward after that or not. An aggressive, burly batsman like Kevin Pietersen will typically take a step forward and smash at the ball. A more defensive player like Alastair Cook will stay behind the crease and play the shot later – often with his weight en on the back foot – relying on steering the ball rather than slogging it to make the runs. The sloggers are more fun to watch, but the defensive players make the big scores.

  5. Thank you James. I kind of got it, and tried to sprinkle in a few obscure sports metaphors of my own to illustrate the issue. I’m saying what you wrote is useful and needed, but in a framing that folks can use. I’m not sure this can be used to explain why the GOP got snookered at, say, the dinner table or gathering. The tell for me was the histrionics by Ryan: I hadn’t paid attention because I stopped liking the public dialogue, but when I say Ryan whining and lashing out I knew something was up. But what? The oxygen was all taken up. This explained it for me, but was a bit prolix and insider-baseball. I can use it, but what about everyone? Just a thought.

  6. You’re correct: he’s a conservative; I think he’s defending Reagan’s legacy, not Johnson’s or FDR’s. And, I’ve never doubted his political skills; they are an aggravating circumstance. I don’t forget that Obama lost the argument over the need for deficit-spending and thorough-going financial reform. I don’t forget that Obama traded away an extension of the Bush Tax Cuts for exactly nothing, and now swears he’s against them, once again.

    Cassandra had the gift of prophecy and the curse of never being believed. What’s mythological figure to associate with the curse of not forgetting what just happened last year or last decade?

  7. Of course Obama is a conservative. Why should he differ from 85% of the Democratic Party?

    I would have no problem with this conservatism if it were the only strand in American politics. It reflects my own policy preferences and political disposition pretty well. But we have a crazy-ass right wing, which keeps tugging the Overton Window in its direction. Without some countervailing force on the left, the net result is pretty ugly. And Obama hasn’t done much to foster this countervailing force.

  8. Correct, the Right won’t make the mistake of underestimating the President’s considerable political skills, though I don’t think his brazen campaign mode played very well this week in the hinterlands (leaving aside the cheering on the West Coast campuses).

    As for Mr. Boehner, he is dumb like a fox. He has one card (the House) to play versus two (Senate plus Executive) and so far, I would say he’s holding his own. As for his allies in the Tea Party, best not satisfy them all at once and too soon. We need them energized and rarin’ for action in 2012. So far, John’s on track.

    And as for the brave Mr. Ryan, I could have got pretty good odds that he couldn’t change the subject to entitlement cutting so quickly, and lived to tell the tale.

    It will be interesting to see how the Gang of Six reacts to all of this.

  9. James and Dan: On a trivial note, your exchange is fun from a British/American language perspective, “playing off the back foot” doesn’t translate well to the U.S. — if it recalls any expression it’s probably “knocked back on his heels”, a negative — in US baseball those who play a parallel style are called, dismissively, “Judy hitters” versus the more manly and laudable sluggers who swing for the fences. But rope a dope works for the US because the sole purpose of laying back is to make the moment you come out slugging all the more devastating.

  10. I see playing off the back foot as a boxer in retreat, and most can’t hit with power on their heels.

  11. Richard, thus the problem with sports metaphor in America (as Keith explains), where our sports are better than yours so we don’t understand cricket. ;o)

    But I imagine tennis when picturing the back foot image, because I know in baseball the power is off the back foot, having played it until middle age. And I agree that the ‘rope-a-dope’ is most likely the best metaphor, especially after the “open microphone” episode from yesterday (although here in the States ‘slog’ would be bad in boxing….).

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