Obama’s deal with the GOP exposes two sad truths

President sacrifices key campaign promise for the sake of political expediency.

It is said that a stereotype gains traction because there is within it an element of truth. This week, we appear to have further confirmation of this idea. In the United States, President Barack Obama has agreed to a deal that sees the economically disastrous tax cuts passed under George W Bush extended for another two years, having campaigned against them in 2008. In this one move, Obama has, for a large number of people, demonstrated the truth in two stereotypes.

First, that politicians from all sides of the spectrum will go back on their campaign promises if it suits them politically. Morals be damned; political expediency is king (another recent example of this was when Obama's predecessor said – with a straight face – that he was not in the business of nation-building). Obama is not bowing to public pressure to appear strong in the face of an enemy as Bush did, however. He is caving in to the pressure from rich Republicans who threatened to filibuster tax relief for the middle-class households of America if the tiny minority of millionaires and billionaires did not also get the same treatment.

Which leads us to the second stereotype: the weak Democrat.

The Democratic Party has been infuriating the American left for years because it appears to be utterly unwilling to fight the Republicans on any issue. The GOP is moving further and further to the right side of the political spectrum, which is dragging what should be the centre to the right. Instead of having a right-left divide, the weakness of the Democratic Party has resulted in a far-right/centre-right divide.

The recent health-care legislation battle is a perfect example. Instead of starting from an absolute position (for instance, a single payer system) and compromising from there, the Democrats started from a compromise position and worked right. The result was a watered-down bill, most of which will not go into effect until 2014.

This tax debate was an example of the same idea. Economists overwhelmingly say that the Bush tax cuts were a major force in the explosion of the national deficit, and that their extension (especially to the super-rich) would only aggravate the problem. Obama could have taken this position and run with it. He could have called the GOP's bluff and told it that the super-rich were not getting their cuts extended and allowed them to filibuster. He would then be able to go in front of the American public and lay the blame at the feet of the corporate-friendly (or more corporate-friendly, at least) Republican Party. They would be responsible for a massive tax rise for everyone, because they wanted to help their already obscenely rich friends and contributors. Now, there is even more fuel on the GOP's "It's Obama's fault for the huge deficit" fire.

Obama has given the Republicans the stick with which to beat him. He claimed when announcing the deal that he would fight the Republicans on this issue, and others, over the next two years.

One question that immediately leaps to mind is this: if he went back on his pledge to fix the American tax system now, what reason is there to believe he won't just do it again in 2012 when the new tax cuts expire? By then, he may no longer be the president. Whose fault would that be? Certainly the Republican political machine and the conservative media outlets will claim responsibility, but honestly the blame would rest mostly on Mr Obama's shoulders.

Yes, we can? Prove it.

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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.