President Obama offered a "grand bargain" yesterday, and although it wasn't particularly grand, it was a bargain: Republicans would get a lowering of the corporate income tax rate, something they've wanted for a long time, and Democrats would get some new investments in infrastructure, job training, and education. Inevitably, Republicans rejected it out of hand. "It's just a further-left version of a widely panned plan he already proposed two years ago, this time with extra goodies for tax-and-spend liberals," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. At this point, Obama could offer to close the E.P.A., eliminate all inheritance taxes, and rename our nation's capital "Reagan, D.C." if Republicans would also agree to give one poor child a sandwich, and they'd say no, because that would be too much big government.
Just as inevitably, in-the-know politicos are wondering, why does he bother with this stuff if he knows what the result will be? Didn't we get enough of this I'm-the-reasonable-one-here-even-if-it-doesn't-produce-anything posturing in his first term? What's the point?
That's not an unreasonable question to ask. But the better question is: As opposed to what?
It isn't as though there's some practical course of action Obama can take that would produce the government activity he'd like to see, and he's choosing to propose failed bargains instead. For instance, one of the things Obama would like is a new round of spending on infrastructure, something that would produce jobs immediately and provide long-term economic benefits as well. But Republicans in Congress won't allow it. So what are his options? This is not an area where he can just issue an executive order to get what he wants. So he can either just forget about it, or he can make a bunch of speeches saying that it would be great if we could invest in infrastructure, without presenting it in the context of some kind of bargain. Or he can do what he did: offer to consent to a Republican priority if they'll agree to some infrastructure investments. If none of the three is going to produce new infrastructure investments, at least the third will produce some small political benefit by showing how intransigent the Republicans are. That raises by some (admittedly very small) amount the possibility of Democrats taking back the House in 2014, the sine qua non of progress on this or almost any other problem.
I'll grant that this strategy doesn't produce much. The American people are pretty inattentive even when it comes to major events, and a two-day story about a proposal on corporate tax rates isn't going to penetrate very far through the thick fog of awareness currently occupied by penis-based mayoral controversies and Kardashianian11Yes, that's an adjective I just made up. Deal with it. hijinks. As Michael Tomasky suggests, whether the public pays attention or not, this proposal can help drive a wedge between the Republicans and corporate America, especially given that there are already tensions there over immigration reform (and it doesn't hurt that corporations favor both sides of this bargain, the infrastructure spending and the lowering of tax rates). The goal would be to leave congressional Republicans with nothing but their Tea Party base, making future defeats more likely.
It may not be much, but it's more than nothing. And what are his other options when it comes to the things he needs Congress for? If you're going to say that it's pointless to propose doomed bargains, you should at least suggest some alternative. And no, saying "Obama needs to lead!" doesn't count.