Everyone knows you can train a dog by rewarding the behavior you want Rover to repeat. But Barack Obama has always been ambitious, so he trains Republicans. The behavior he rewards is intransigence. Every time congressional Republicans adopt an inflexible position ― such as their current no-tax-hikes stance in negotiations over raising the federal debt ceiling ― the president rewards them with a treat.
Remember health care? Republicans were adamantly opposed to any scheme that might extend coverage to the 50 million Americans lacking it, or at last put Uncle Sam in a position to rein in the world’s highest medical spending. Obama might have played hardball by telling the people, “These Republicans don’t care if you or your children die in the streets for lack of insurance. It doesn’t bother them that thousands of good Americans just like you are bankrupted by hospital bills. But I care. So whose side are you on?”
Instead Obama tried every which way to please congressional Republicans. They gave up nothing, and they got a nice treat ― a plan less far-reaching than it might have been. It retains all the unique features that make our system so fragmented and expensive. And it still won’t cover everybody. Now the Republicans are railing against the requirement that most people obtain insurance, even though this perfectly good Republican idea was adopted by presidential hopeful Mitt Romney when he was governor of Massachusetts.
That state now covers virtually all its residents and the sky hasn’t fallen, although the former governor must cope with headlines like this one in the Onion, a mock newspaper: “Mitt Romney Haunted By Past Of Trying To Help Uninsured Sick People.” Despite their newfound fiscal rectitude, congressional Republicans were also bound and determined not to let the budget-busting Bush tax cuts expire at the end of last year. Unable to push through an extension on their own, they refused to extend unemployment benefits ― in effect holding jobless Americans hostage.
“Now that I’m president,” Obama might have shouted from the rooftops, “these Republicans are all aflutter over the deficit. But when George W. Bush was running up the national debt by invading Iraq, cutting taxes for the rich, and blowing up the economy, we didn’t hear a peep out of them!” Instead, the president made a bargain. Republicans went along with a stimulus plan to help jobless Americans while staving off unemployment for others. In exchange, the president agreed to extend the Bush tax cuts, even though they add to the deficit while mainly helping those who don’t need aid. Once again, Republicans were rewarded for stonewalling.
Is it any wonder they’re trying it again in the battle over raising the debt ceiling? Republicans have vowed to let the country default on what is traditionally considered the safest investment in the world ― debt issued by the United States government ― rather than raise a single dollar in taxes toward closing the deficit. They’re sticking to this even though Americans are just about the least taxed people in the industrialized world.
Predictably, the president rewarded this stance by putting trillions in spending cuts on the table. Forty Republicans then signed a pledge to block any deal that didn’t include a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution ― a plan as silly as it is implausible. Republicans often say government needs to act more like business, and the president ought to listen. No one in business would negotiate the way he has. Perhaps a new adviser could help ― and I know just the guy. Goes by the name of Pavlov. And Mr. President, he’s just drooling to meet you.
By Daniel Akst, Newsday
Daniel Akst, a columnist for Newsday, is the author of “We Have Met the Enemy: Self-Control in an Age of Excess” from Penguin Press. ― Ed.
(McClatchy-Tribune Information Services)