Where do we go from here? President Obama is re-elected, but Republicans not only retained control in the House of Representatives, but added to their majority. While the GOP was a train wreck in the Senate and blew opportunities to close the gap or take control, they still have more than enough seats to filibuster controversial legislation (you only need 41), something they didn’t have in the first two years of Obama’s term. It adds up to a recipe for gridlock, as the national debt keeps growing.
President Obama’s allies have rushed to claim a “mandate”, as have all previous presidential winners before him. If by “mandate”, they mean that officeholders in the Congress—also democratically elected in their own right—have some obligation to roll over for whatever the president desires, than I disagree.
We might recall the late Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill refused to grant any vague “mandate” privilege to Ronald Reagan after the latter was re-elected in 1984—an election Reagan won with 59 percent of the vote and carrying 49 states. Even less does current GOP speaker John Boehner owe a mandate to a president re-elected by only two percentage points in the popular vote.
But Boehner’s claims of a mandate of his own are equally silly, and as the debt skyrockets, with China buying it up and gaining increasing leverage on the United States, both the Speaker and the President are going to have to come to some kind of deal and then sell their parties on it.
The reality is that a $16 trillion debt doesn’t get solved without unpopular solutions, including solutions all of us aren’t going to like. Solving the debt is more important than the pet agendas a lot of us would like to see enacted—for me it’s the up-front costs of transitioning Social Security and Medicare to private accounts and vouchers. For others it might be a sweeping tax cut or an expansive new federal program. Those are the goodies, but the prerequisite to doing anything is a real plan to contain the national debt, as politically unromantic as that might be.
Neither side has been honest with the American public. Obama has pretended raising taxes a few percentage points on a few extremely rich people will enable him to cut the deficit and still invest more in education and job training. Republicans, still living in the world Ronald Reagan inherited in 1981 can’t get beyond tax-cutting. Both agendas are going to have to be shelved.
A starting point for negotiation might be this—give Obama what we wants regarding the modest tax hike on the upper brackets. The rates going from 35 to 39 percent are not the difference between capitalism and socialism. But Boehner, and his strengthened Republican majority have a right to significant concessions of their own.
It’s long past time the left wing of the Democratic Party recognize that the wealthiest of the elderly don’t need to keep collecting Social Security, or get Medicare benefits. Republicans tried to broach this topic in the early 1980s and again in 1986, were demonized for it, lost big in congressional elections and learned their lesson—that the Democrats couldn’t be trusted to deal honestly with them on Social Security and Medicare
But these two programs are where the money is at. So perhaps Boehner should take Obama up on his offer—start the debt reduction by asking their wealthiest to pay a little more—but insist that the president himself get out front of taking the richest off Social Security, make it clear to the Left that the time has come for this change and stop the charade of one party playing ‘gotcha’ with the other.
Boehner wouldn’t be popular in his own party if he sold a modest tax hike on the upper brackets as part of a debt deal. Obama would lose the “cool kid” status he covets so much with his own base if he pushed for this type of Social Security reform. But in the loss of popularity and coolness, both could gain a new title—leader. It’s time for both men to start acting like one.
Dan Flaherty is the author of Fulcrum, an Irish Catholic novel set in postwar Boston with a traditional Democratic mayoral campaign at its heart, and he is the editor-in-chief of TheSportsNotebook.com