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"We Don't Negotiate with Ourselves"

November 16, 2010

Everything you need to know about the difference between the governing style of Republicans and Democrats is on display in the battles over the passage and expiration of the Bush tax cuts. Despite large Congressional majorities and broad public support for ending as promised the budget-busting Bush windfall for the wealthy, President Obama and squeamish Democrats may be on the verge of buckling. But facing a divided Congress without a popular vote mandate for its tax cutting program, 10 years ago the Bush White House bulldozed Congress with one simple message: "We don't negotiate with ourselves."
On Monday, the Washington Post's Ezra Klein described four possible deals for addressing the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts set to expire on December 31. But as Klein lamented, it shouldn't have come to this for President Obama and his party:

The expiration date for the tax cuts was set into law 10 years ago. Congress shouldn't still be scrambling to figure this out with less than 50 days to go.
But it is. And it's the Democrats -- as they still control both houses of Congress and the presidency -- who deserve the blame. They still have not settled on a policy or strategy for extending the Bush tax cuts. They waited until after the election, which weakened their hand. And they've been unable to get their members on the same page, which has kept them from messaging the issue to the country or forcing Republicans to the negotiating table.
Which is a shame, because even an extension of the tax cuts is a much-needed legislative opportunity for a reeling party that desperately needs some political and procedural leverage over the Republicans. Democrats being Democrats, it's entirely possible that they'll take neither, and simply extend the tax cuts outright.

Somewhere, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney are laughing.
Following the disputed 2000 election, the Bush-Cheney transition team prepared to assume the White House without either a popular vote mandate or dominant majorities in Congress. But while the mainstream media consensus concluded that a "weakened" President Bush would have to govern from the center and "build bridges to the opposition," Dick Cheney had a different idea. Especially when it came to the Republican ticket's radical plan of tax cuts for the economy, Cheney insisted:

"We don't negotiate with ourselves."

As Barton Gellman details in his book, Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency, Dick Cheney made it abundantly clear that the Bush administration would put pedal to the metal in pursuit of its radical agenda. In a series of media appearances that December, Cheney proceeded as if the Florida recount and Bush v. Gore had never happened.
His December 3, 2000 exchange with the late Tim Russert on Meet the Press is particularly telling:

RUSSERT: Governor Bush and you campaigned on a platform of a $1.3 trillion tax cut. Now that the Senate is 50-50, Democrats-Republicans, and the Republicans control the House by eight or nine votes, won't you have to scale down your tax cut in order to pass it? [...] But, in reality, with a 50-50 Senate and a close, close, small majority in the House, you're going to have to have a moderate, mainstream, centrist governance, aren't you?
CHENEY: Oh, I think so. [...] But I think there's no reason in the world why we can't do exactly what Governor Bush campaigned on.

Two weeks later, following the controversial Supreme Court decision which made George W. Bush the 43rd President, Cheney made his case even more forcefully on Face the Nation:

"As President-elect Bush has made very clear, he ran on a particular platform that was very carefully developed. It's his program, it's his agenda, and we have no intention at all of backing off of it. It's why we got elected.
So we're going to aggressively pursue tax changes, tax reform, tax cuts, because it's important to do so. [...] The suggestion that somehow, because this was a close election, we should fundamentally change our beliefs, I just think is silly."

When Gloria Borger interrupted to object that "with all due respect, the Democrats are saying that this administration cannot proceed as the Reagan administration did, for example, with a large tax bill, because you don't have the mandate that a Ronald Reagan.," Cheney fired back:

"There is no reason in the world, and I simply don't buy the notion, that somehow we come to office now as a, quote, 'weakened president.' [...] We've got a good program, and we're going to pursue it."

Which is exactly what transpired. By April 2001, President Bush and Vice President Cheney had their $1.2 trillion tax cut, courtesy of precisely the strategy Borger ridiculed as " cherry pick[ing] one or two Democrats here and there and get them to sign on to whatever tax bill you have."
President Obama doesn't even need to do that. For six more weeks, he has large majorities in the House and Senate to ram through the extension of middle class tax cuts for families making under $250,000. And that platform is as popular now - even among midterm voters who produced a Republican wave two weeks ago - as it was when Obama ran for President in 2008. Forcing Republicans to filibuster middle class tax relief in order to give the richest Americans a $700 billion, ten-year payday is a winning position for the White House. Yet, a battered, beaten and bewildered Democratic Party once again is poised to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
Appearing on Countdown with Keith Olbermann on Monday, Howard Fineman of the Huffington Post seemed at a loss to explain the Democrats' implosion. "They have lost faith, if they ever had any, in the idea that they could control the narrative and the debate," offered a puzzled Fineman, adding, "They lost their nerve." That loss of backbone, he insisted, even extends to lame-duck Congressional Democrats with nothing left to lose.
But it was Olbermann regular Richard Wolfe who provided perhaps the most damning assessment of an Obama team seemingly committed to compromising away a winning issue in the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy:

"They're negotiating against themselves. It's a pattern we've seen before with this White House. And if they give stuff up at this stage, Republicans will just drive a Hummer through it."

Just like the one George W. Bush and Dick Cheney drove over Democrats when they passed the Bush tax cuts in the first place.

2 comments on “"We Don't Negotiate with Ourselves"”

  1. Yes, tax cuts. Which are easy to support and hard to defend against. And Bush barely got them passed. But for our situation, Obama wasn't negotiating with himself. He was negotiating with other Democrats, who told him not to hold the vote. What was he supposed to do? Threaten them? Is that really how you want our democracy to work? What exactly is the point of having a legislative branch if the president is supposed to order them around?
    And pray tell, what are the other Bush success stories? They gave us a dumb war that they paid significant political damage for. They gave us a prescription drug plan they didn't really want. They got steamrolled by Democrats for trying to privatize Social Security, which left Bush dead in the water. What else? Where are the Bush legislative success stories? Eight years in office, and you can count them on one hand.
    The problem isn't that Bush/Cheney were political strongmen who rolled over Democrats. It's that they could succeed by cherrypicking a few Democrats on a popular policy. Obama wasn't able to cherrypick any Republicans. This means we're wimps? Of course not. In reality, Obama got FAR more out of his Congress than Bush got out of his. The vast majority of damage Bush did was done in the Whitehouse, not in Congress. To suggest otherwise is revisionist history.
    Perhaps if people spent more time attacking Republican lies instead of attacking Obama for not being a dictator, we wouldn't have so many people believing the lies.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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