Try this exercise: name some of President Obama’s campaign pledges. Unless you were actually covering the elecetion, I bet you can only name one: the pledge to raise taxes on people who made more than $250,000. No new programs to solve some problem, no high-concept bargain to unite the nation . . . no, the one thing that Democrats wanted to do was raise taxes for 2% of taxpayers, and only 2% of taxpayers. Not to pay for anything in particular, but just because the rich had too much. And why was this—rather than some actual policy program—the centerpiece of his agenda? Because his base liked it, and because opposing it made the ultra-rich Mitt Romney look like a selfish heel.
Having run almost his entire campaign on this one small item, his base was eager to see him follow through—and more importantly, to see him force Republicans into concessions on taxes. The utter fixation on this non-policy policy was bewildering to an outsider: was it really more important to get a symbolic win than to coddle the frail economy? Or to try to heal the growing rift between the parties? It’s like watching a friend decide to fix her credit score, and her marriage, by getting a makeover.
This magical thinking pervades my home city these days; all of Washington seems to have convinced itself that Congress has the legislative power to repeal the rules of arithmetic. During the 2011 debt ceiling battle, if you asked Republican zealots what they thought would happen when the government hit the borrowing limit, they replied that Democrats would be forced to give in and cut spending. In vain did I—and many others—point out that once you got through interest on the debt, old age entitlements, veteran’s benefits, and military and family housing, there would be no money left. Were they going to get rid of the border patrol? Strand active-duty soldiers in Afghanistan? Stop safeguarding nuclear waste and repairing the highways? Emboldened conservatives had no answers except a stubborn insistence that they weren’t going to authorize any more borrowing—or taxes. They wanted a victory, not a plan.