You could almost hear the hands rubbing together in glee within Pres. Barack Obama’s political shop at the failure of the congressional supercommittee. How the president’s politicos must welcome a new count in the indictment against the “do-nothing Congress.”
The phrase famously originates from the 1948 presidential election when Harry Truman (who borrowed it from a reporter) used it to lambaste a just-elected Republican Congress and claw his way to an upset reelection victory. Hopeful Democrats think “Give ’em hell, Barry” can use the 1948 template to overcome his poor standing in the polls in another victory over another new, unpopular Republican Congress.
That the Truman campaign is a template at all is a measure of Obama’s desperation, and of his definitive termination of the politics of hope and change. We associate 1948 with the smiling, triumphant Truman holding up a post-election copy of the Chicago Daily Tribune with the erroneous headline dewey defeats truman. That’s because there are no compelling photos of the low demagoguery that fueled his reelection.
In his book The Last Campaign, Zachary Karabell writes: “It was a campaign of us and them, of anger and bitterness, of the haves and have-nots. Truman fought to lead the country for another four years, and to achieve that victory he was willing to sow dissension, stir up fear, and slander his opponents.” In this sense, President Obama is sure to channel the Spirit of ’48.
At his whistle-stops, Truman ranted: “The Republican gluttons of privilege are cold men. They are cunning men. And it is their constant aim to put the government of the United States under the control of men like themselves. They want a return of the Wall Street economic dictatorship.” Subtle. This was when he wasn’t comparing Republicans to Hitler and Tojo as threats to democracy.
Obama’s rhetoric isn’t so purple, but his agenda has boiled down to tax increases for the rich, a politically popular wedge issue that Democrats leverage at every opportunity. Want to reduce the deficit by $1.2 trillion over the next ten years when we’re set to spend roughly another $45 trillion? Sorry, it can’t be done without tax increases on the rich. Want to extend the temporary payroll tax cut? Sorry, it must be paid for with tax increases on the rich. Tax increases on the rich have become the Democrats’ alpha and omega, their sine qua non of government.
Harry Truman, the nasty virtuoso of crude populism, would surely approve. But as Jay Cost pointed out in an essay for The Weekly Standard, Truman benefited in 1948 from conditions that Barack Obama, no matter how vigorous his hell-giving, can only envy.
Truman ran against the backdrop of popular New Deal legislation of recent vintage; Obama’s signature pieces of legislation, the stimulus and Obamacare, stink in the nostrils of the American public. Truman used a brief downturn in the economy toward the end of 1948 to his advantage, winning over the Midwest by blaming Republicans for not doing enough to alleviate falling crop prices; any downtick in this tenuous economy will be a disaster for Obama. Truman ran against a Republican in Thomas Dewey who was reluctant to attack him; Obama’s opponent will happily blast away.
Then there’s the matter of Democratic complicity in Congress doing nothing. Supercommittee Democrats rejected a last-ditch Republican offer of about $600 billion in consensus savings. The GOP wanted to salvage something; the Democrats wanted nothing — at least nothing without a tax increase. If President Obama were so worried about the deficit stalemate, he could publicly offer his own package of specific entitlement savings that would immediately break the logjam. He can’t because his base won’t abide it, and a substantial bipartisan accomplishment would undo his campaign theme.
It’s too cynical by half, but Obama is going to make like Truman: He’ll buckle his chin strap, say anything to win and, if he succeeds, hope history cleans up the ugly affair later.