President Barack Obama’s second inaugural comes at an interesting moment, what you might call the end of the era of the Grand Bargain. Throughout his first term, Democrats and Republicans didn’t achieve a Grand Bargain on spending and taxes, but there was a sense that history was moving in that direction.
The Simpson-Bowles commission sketched out a vision of what a Grand Bargain might look like. Obama and John Boehner tried to craft some semi-Grand Bargains. There was a lot of talk at think tanks of what the best combination of tax reform and entitlement reform might be.
The “fiscal cliff” fiasco has persuaded many smart people that a Grand Bargain is not going to happen any time soon. A political class that botched the fiscal cliff so badly is not going to be capable of a gigantic deal on complex issues. It’s like going into a day care center and asking a bunch of infants to perform “Swan Lake.”
Polarization is too deep. Special interests are too strong. The negotiators are too rusty. Republicans are not going to give up their vision of a low-tax America. Democrats are not willing to change the current entitlement programs.
So as the president enters his second term, there has to be a new controlling narrative, a new strategy for how to spend the next four years.
As you know, I am an earnest, good-government type, so the strategy I’d prefer might be called Learning to Crawl. It would be based on the notion that you have to learn to crawl before you can run. So over the next four years, legislators should work on a series of realistic, incremental laws that would rebuild the habits of compromise, competence and trust.
We could do some education reform, expand visa laws to admit more high-skill workers, encourage responsible drilling for natural gas, maybe establish an infrastructure bank. Political leaders would erode partisan orthodoxies and get back into the habit of passing laws together. Then, down the road, their successors could do the big things.
I may be earnest, but I’m not an idiot. I know there is little chance that today’s partisan players are going to adopt this kind of incremental goo-goo approach. It’s more likely that today’s majority party is going to adopt a different strategy, which you might call Kill the Wounded. It’s more likely that today’s Democrats are going to tell themselves something like this:
“We live at a unique moment. Our opponents, the Republicans, are divided, confused and bleeding. This is not the time to allow them to rebuild their reputation with a series of modest accomplishments. This is the time to kick them when they are down, to win back the House and end the current version of the Republican Party.
“First, we change the narrative. The president ran in 2008 against Washington dysfunction, casting blame on both parties. Over the years, he has migrated to a different narrative: The Republicans are crazy. Washington could be working fine, but the Republicans are crazy.
“At every public appearance, the president should double-down on that theme. The Democratic base already believes it. The media is sympathetic. Independents could be persuaded.
“Then, wedge issues. The president should propose no new measures that might unite Republicans, the way health care did in the first term. Instead, he should raise a series of wedge issues meant to divide Southerners from Midwesterners, the Tea Party/Talk Radio base from the less ideological corporate and managerial class.
“He’s already started with a perfectly designed gun control package, inviting a long battle with the NRA over background checks and magazine clips. That will divide the gun lobby from suburbanites. Then he can re-introduce Bush’s comprehensive immigration reform. That will divide the anti-immigration groups from the business groups (conventional wisdom underestimates how hard it is going to be for Republicans to back comprehensive reforms).
“Then he could invite a series of confrontations with Republicans over things like the debt ceiling – make them look like wackos willing to endanger the entire global economy. Along the way, he could highlight women’s issues, social mobility issues (student loans, community college funding) and pick fights on compassion issues, (hurricane relief) – promoting any small, popular spending programs that Republicans will oppose.
“Twice a month, Democrats should force Republicans to cast an awful vote: Either offend mainstream supporters or risk a primary challenge from the right.”
Just as Sen. Mitch McConnell made defeating Obama his main political objective, Democrats seem likely to make winning back the House their primary political objective. Experts are divided on how plausible this is, but the GOP is unpopular and the opportunity is there.
This isn’t the Washington I want to cover, but it’s the most likely one. How will Republicans respond to this onslaught? I have no idea.David Brooks is a New York Times columnist.