By JONATHAN GURWITZ
New York Times News Service
For a brief moment after presidential elections, there’s a decent interval when magnanimity reigns, bipartisanship seems practicable and hope springs eternal that the nation’s leaders will actually work in the national interest.
“At a time like this, we can’t risk partisan bickering and political posturing,” Mitt Romney said in his concession speech on election night. “Our leaders have to reach across the aisle to do the people’s work.”
“You elected us to focus on your jobs, not ours,” President Barack Obama said in his victory speech. “And in the coming weeks and months, I am looking forward to reaching out and working with leaders of both parties to meet the challenges we can only solve together.”
Then the moment is gone, and partisan trench warfare resumes.
“Maybe peace would have broken out with a different kind of White House, one less committed to waging a perpetual campaign — a White House that would see a 51-48 victory as a call to humility and compromise rather than an irrefutable mandate.” That quote, too, comes from Barack Obama — in the first chapter of “The Audacity of Hope,” commenting on the situation in Washington as he was sworn into the 109th Congress after George W. Bush’s re-election eight years ago.
There are none so blind as those who will not see. Having won his own re-election by a similarly unremarkable margin, President Obama is claiming his irrefutable mandate for $1.6 trillion in new taxes, $50 billion in new “stimulus” spending — because the $800 billion version worked so well — and the imperial power to raise the debt ceiling without the need for congressional approval. And that mandate evidently exempts the president from the call to humility and compromise in seriously dealing with the debt crisis and its biggest driver — entitlement spending.
House Speaker John Boehner, the leader of the GOP opposition, is misreading his own mandate as well. The same election that gave Obama a narrower victory than in 2008 gave Republicans in the House a narrower majority than in 2010.
If there is one thing voters were perfectly clear about on Nov. 6, it was that Barack Obama in his second term would raise taxes on those he considers to be wealthy. That can happen in one of two ways.
Republicans can concede the point, allowing tax rates for joint filers earning more than $250,000 to return to Clinton-era levels. That would — according to the Congressional Budget Office — raise $824 billion over 10 years, an amount that wouldn’t cover even one year of Obama-era deficits. Doing so, though, would allow Republicans to champion the more important issues of reforming spending and entitlements as well as the broader goal of reforming the tax code.
Or Republicans can simply let the Bush tax cuts expire across the board and allow automatic spending cuts to take effect. If the nation goes over the fiscal cliff, GOP leaders can try to blame the White House. They can call it an Obama tax increase. They can anticipate the political dividends of an Obama recession. But if tax rates go up on everyone because of a futile attempt to protect the top 2 percent, Republicans will lose the fiscal cliff blame game in a big way.
The president and the speaker both have much at stake in this battle — legacies, political capital, prestige … personal stuff. Boehner declined to have a Christmas photo taken with Obama at the White House. The nation stands to lose much more.
The season calls for peace on Earth. The moment calls for statesmanship. Instead, what the American people are getting is a petty display of personal hostility and partisan brinksmanship.