The Wisdom of Gail Collins

There’s no snappier commentator on our dysfunctional politics than the Times’ Gail Collins. Not only is she the snappiest, but for my money the most versatile as well. Take her excellent column today, which makes what I think are two crucial point, albeit very different from each other. I would paraphrase, but that would just foul up the eloquence, so I’ll let the woman speak for herself.

Point #1:

When was it that the singing of “Kumbaya” became a shorthand for weenieness? “Kumbaya'” is an excellent campfire song, especially for groups that border on tone-deafness and don’t know the words to anything.”

I couldn’t agree more, especially as I fit both the aforementioned criteria. It’s a good song. Angry partisans, go find another metaphor for naive  political compromise.

Point #2:

But let’s admit it. Nothing would have gotten done if Obama hadn’t swallowed that loathsome compromise on tax cuts for the wealthy.

If he’d taken the high road, Congress would be in a holiday war. The long-term unemployed would be staggering into the new year without benefits. The rest of the world would look upon the United States as a country so dysfunctional that it can’t even ratify a treaty to help keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists. The people who worked at ground zero would still be uncertain about their future, and our gay and lesbian soldiers would still be living in fear.

It’s depressing to think that there was no way to win that would not have involved giving away billions of dollars to people who don’t need it. But it’s kind of cheery to think we have a president who actually does know what he’s doing.”

Yes, I’m slowly coming around. I hated the obscene ransom deal Obama went along with just to get Republicans to agree to what they should have–as a matter of conscience–agreed to all along, and still do. The fight over extending the Bush tax cuts for the top 2 percent is one Obama and the Dems should have been spoiling for long before the midterms. I suspect it might have even saved them a bunch of seats by crystallizing once and for all just what the Republican Party is really all about. Alas, Democrats retreated to the safe ground of inaction and paid royally at the polls. But it was probably unreasonable to think that the damage could be undone with a two-week display of progressive backbone in the lame-duck session. With a Republican House on its way into town, the Republicans had the luxury of waiting out the clock on this Congress, ramming through a full extension of the tax cuts (with none of the sweeteners for Democrats in the current deal), and then daring Democrats to assume responsibility for letting everyone’s taxes rise.

We can now console ourselves for the next week with the fruits of this sudden and unforeseen blossoming of bipartisanship–DADT repeal, START, 9/11 first responders aid. And Collins is right that none of this likely would have happened without the (very costly) olive branch extended by the president to Republicans two weeks ago.

But let’s not delude ourselves. This feel-good moment of bipartisan cooperation is pure ephemera. The president will, come January, find himself right back in the trenches against a Republican opposition determined to deny him even the smallest legislative victory heading into 2012. Let’s just hope that the lesson the White House has taken out of this isn’t that for the small price of compromising all your economic principles you can notch up a few wins to email your supporters about but rather that if you don’t want to have to compromise all your economic principles in the first place, you had better be willing to stand up and fight for them early and often.

The new Congress convenes January 5. We’ll find out which message Obama and co. got soon enough.

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