Peggy Noonan's Fantastical Cliff

If there's a coherent point to Peggy Noonan's January 3 Wall Street Journal column on President Obama and the fiscal cliff, it's not readily apparent. The general thrust seems to be that the president is constitutionally incapable of cutting deals with his Republican adversaries in Congress, but Noonan's arguments are almost completely untethered to the actual story of the fiscal cliff negotiations.

Noonan writes of the president:

He didn't deepen any relationships or begin any potential alliances with Republicans, who still, actually, hold the House. The old animosity was aggravated. Some Republicans were mildly hopeful a second term might moderate those presidential attitudes that didn't quite work the first time, such as holding himself aloof from the position and predicaments of those who oppose him, while betraying an air of disdain for their arguments. He is not quick to assume good faith. Some thought his election victory might liberate him, make his approach more expansive. That didn't happen.

“Some Republicans were mildly hopeful a second term might moderate those presidential attitudes that didn't quite work the first time.” What? Obama won reelection comfortably. He won reelection after passing sweeping health care and economic recovery bills in the face of unified Republican opposition. To the extent that Obama had “presidential attitudes that didn't quite work,” they weren't dysfunctional enough to derail his agenda or make the 2012 race a nail-biter, so what exactly is Noonan talking about?

And what reason does the president have to “assume good faith” on the part of the GOP? On the day of his first inauguration the GOP congressional leadership plotted out its strategy to act in bad faith with the intention of unseating him. Is Obama supposed to trust them now because that goal is no longer operative? None of this makes sense.

The president didn't allow his victory to go unsullied. Right up to the end he taunted the Republicans in Congress: They have a problem saying yes to him, normal folks try to sit down and work it out, not everyone gets everything they want. But he got what he wanted, as surely he knew he would, and Republicans got almost nothing they wanted, which was also in the cards. At Mr. Obama's campfire, he gets to sing “Kumbaya” solo while others nod to the beat.

Obama had the stronger hand, but he did not get everything he wanted. The White House wanted tax rates to go up on household income exceeding $250,000; in the end they settled on $450,000. The president wanted the estate tax bumped to 45 percent and the exemption knocked down to $3.5 million; in the end it was set at 40 percent with a $5 million exemption. And that compromise came about by negotiating with the Senate while the House GOP fumbled about with the abortive “Plan B” -- Boehner's bill to raise rates on people making $1 million plus that failed when his own caucus refused to support it -- and threatened to scuttle the Senate deal before finally approving it.

Sticking with Noonan's campfire metaphor, Obama was singing “Kumbaya” while Senate Republicans mumbled along and the House GOP were off in the woods whacking each other with whiffle bats.

Here's where Noonan's argument really goes off the rails:

Mr. Obama's supporters always give him an out by saying, “But the president can't work with them, they made it clear from the beginning their agenda was to do him in.” That's true enough. But it's true with every American president now--the other side is always trying to do him in, or at least the other side's big mouths are always braying they'll take him down. They tried to capsize Bill Clinton, they tried to do in Reagan, they called him an amiable dunce and vowed to defeat his wicked ideology.

We live in a polarized age. We have for a while. One of the odd things about the Obama White House is that they are traumatized by the normal.

A lot of the president's staffers were new to national politics when they came in, and they seem to have concluded that the partisan bitterness they faced was unique to him, and uniquely sinister. It's just politics, or the ugly way we do politics now.

After the past week it seems clear Mr Obama doesn't really want to work well with the other side. He doesn't want big bipartisan victories that let everyone crow a little and move forward and make progress. He wants his opponents in disarray, fighting without and within. He wants them incapable. He wants them confused.

So the president can't work with Republicans because they're reflexively partisan, but that's the normal now and he should adjust to it by trying to work with the reflexively partisan Republicans, even though they won't work with him. Noonan is literally arguing for forced, ineffectual bipartisanship just for the sake of it, and placing the onus entirely on one party -- indeed, one person -- even as she recognizes that the other side refuses to cooperate.

Why, according to Noonan, does Obama eschew bipartisanship?

Here's my conjecture: In part it's because he seems to like the tension. He likes cliffs, which is why it's always a cliff with him and never a deal. He likes the high-stakes, tottering air of crisis. Maybe it makes him feel his mastery and reminds him how cool he is, unrattled while he rattles others. He can take it. Can they?

This argument might be compelling were Obama not pushing for a complete and total end to the “high-stakes, tottering air of crisis” that attends the episodic wrangling over raising the debt ceiling. He's explicitly trying to avoid future “cliffs” of the sort Noonan claims he loves to exploit.

Moving on:

Maybe he thinks bipartisan progress raises the Republicans almost to his level, and he doesn't want to do that. They're partisan hacks, they're not big like him. Let them flail.

Noonan acknowledged eight paragraphs prior to this sentence that the Republicans are partisan hacks. I quote, again: “Mr. Obama's supporters always give him an out by saying, 'But the president can't work with them, they made it clear from the beginning their agenda was to do him in.' That's true enough.”

And here's the big finale:

In the short term, Mr. Obama has won. The Republicans look bad. John Boehner looks bad, though to many in Washington he's a sympathetic figure because they know how much he wanted a historic agreement on the great issue of his time. Some say he would have been happy to crown his career with it, and if that meant losing a job, well, a short-term loss is worth a long-term crown. Mr. Obama couldn't even make a deal with a man like that, even when it would have made the president look good.

Again, Boehner proposed Plan B -- which dealt only with tax rates for millionaires -- as an “alternative to negotiating a broader package with President Obama.” The bill was doomed from the start, given that the White House issued a veto threat and the Senate would have killed it anyway. When it failed because he could not wrangle enough support from the legislative body he controls, Boehner recessed the House for the holidays and issued a statement punting responsibility for making a deal to the White House and the Senate, which they did, and which Boehner's caucus still opposed by a 2-1 margin.

What negotiating and deal-making that did happen happened in spite of Boehner, who threw the whole process into chaos by pushing for a narrower package that was destined to fail. Noonan managed somehow to miss all of this.