The attack on Pearl Harbor was a shocking defeat for the United States military. Japanese aircraft left a wrecking yard of burning and shattered warships in their wake. It’s a story every US school child still learns today.
But it’s not the whole story. Even as the smoke cleared the US Navy was hard at work untangling the mess and salvaging the fleet. Many of the sunken warships rose again to fight the Axis. Only three were damaged beyond repair.
“The salvage and restoration of those ships is a saga of expertise, tenacity, hard work, and invincible optimism,” wrote University of Maryland historian Gordon Prange in his classic history of Pearl Harbor, “At Dawn We Slept.”
When the waves of Japanese torpedo planes and aerial bombers swept over the US Hawaiian naval base their primary targets were seven battleships berthed alongside quays in Pearl Harbor proper and the Pacific fleet flagship USS Pennsylvania, which was in dry dock at the time.
Five of these battleships were sunk outright. That does not mean they were all blown apart by a rain of Japanese munitions.
“The available documentary evidence suggests that, of those five, the Oklahoma and Nevada were lost because of design defects, the West Virginia was simply overwhelmed by force her defenses were not meant to thwart, and the California was sunk because of the performance of her officers and crew,” wrote Thomas C. Hone in a Naval History Magazine survey of the damage republished in 2012.
The USS Arizona was destroyed by an explosion in its forward magazine that thoroughly wrecked the vessel. It lies on the floor of the harbor to this day, serving as a memorial to those who died on Dec. 7, 1941.
Three US cruisers, three destroyers, a target ship, and a minelayer were also sunk or heavily damaged.
Recovery work started immediately. Within three months most of the smaller ships and three of the battleships – the USS Pennsylvania, the USS Maryland, and the USS Tennessee – were either returned to service or refloated and steamed to the continental US for final repairs.
Resurrection of the rest of the fleet took longer. The shallow water of the anchorage made work on the battleships possible, but not easy. The USS Nevada, for instance, had one large and many small holes in her hull. Her interior was full of water and many compartments were burned out.
“Most significantly, her deficiencies in watertight integrity, which had led to her sinking in the first place, now had to be made good under very difficult circumstances,” notes the official Navy History and Heritage Command account of the effort.
Two men lost their lives after breathing poisonous gases that had accumulated in the ship’s interior. Eventually she was refloated and shipped to Bremerton, Wash., for repairs. She rejoined the active fleet in late 1942.
The USS California was even more damaged than her sister the Nevada. She had been holed by two torpedoes and a bomb and was fully submerged to the main deck level. Salvage teams built a wooden cofferdam on her superstructure, above the waterline, to aid in recovery and pumping efforts. Divers closed manhole covers and doors. After refloating and an extensive rebuild at the Puget Sound Navy Yard, the ship returned to the combat fleet in early 1944.
The USS West Virginia was the most severely damaged battleship that lived to fight another day. Her port side had been ripped up by eight Japanese torpedoes, according to the official Navy account, and her rudder had been ripped off by another.
The ship’s contents, from 800,000 gallons of fuel oil to projectiles for her guns, had to be removed before the ship could be patched and refloated. Work continued at Pearl Harbor until April, 1943. Extensively refitted at the Puget Sound Navy Yard, the West Virginia returned to service in July 1944 “and took an active part in the Pacific War’s final year,” according to the Navy.
The target ship USS Utah, and the battleships USS Arizona and Oklahoma, were the only ships the Japanese left beyond repair. The Utah remains on the Pearl Harbor floor along with the Arizona. The Oklahoma was raised after a massive effort but proved to be too damaged to return to service. [Editor's note: The original version of this story mischaracterized the Oklahoma's status.]
The effort to reclaim the fleet was, as the Naval History and Heritage Command says, “One of history’s greatest salvage jobs.” Divers spent over 20,000 hours underwater. Even in dry areas workers often had to wear gas masks to protect against the risk of toxic fumes.
The US Navy’s ability to limit the material damage of the Pearl Harbor attack was one of the reasons why Japanese military leaders later came to understand that on that fateful December day they had won a battle, but lost the war.
But in the end, time accomplished what they could not. All the recovered ships were eventually sold for scrap, or blown apart in target or atomic weapon tests, or otherwise decommissioned. (The USS Arizona is no longer a commissioned warship, but retains the right to fly the US flag as if she were on active duty.)
However, of the 101 US fighting ships present in Hawaiian waters on Dec. 7, 1941, one lives on. It is not a battleship, or a cruiser, or even a destroyer. It is the US Coast Guard Cutter Taney, which fired at attackers with its anti-aircraft guns from its Honolulu Harbor pier.
As if to bolster the argument that President Obama has the upper hand in "fiscal cliff" negotiations with congressional Republicans, Friday’s news brought both a better-than-expected jobs report and a new poll showing Mr. Obama with his highest approval rating since the killing of Osama bin Laden.
The jobs report showed, contrary to expectations, almost no negative impact from hurricane Sandy or the looming fiscal cliff, with 146,000 jobs created in November. The unemployment rate ticked down to 7.7 percent – although that was in part because more job-seekers dropped out of the hunt.
At the same time, an Associated Press/GfK poll shows Obama’s approval rating now stands at 57 percent, up 13 percentage points from this time last year.
To some extent, that’s probably just the impact of the election (a winner always tends to look more appealing in the eyes of the public). But that doesn’t mean the president can’t leverage that popularity in the current negotiations. He could also plausibly argue that the public backs his vision for the economy, since the poll showed 54 percent of Americans believe Obama will be able to improve economic conditions in his second term – though only 40 percent now expect it to improve over the next 12 months, down from 52 percent before the election.
Of course, 63 percent of Americans still describe the economy overall as “poor.” But that number has dropped from an eye-popping high of 86 percent back in August 2011, after the debt-ceiling debacle – something neither party wants to repeat.
In terms of what else the public believes Obama will be able to accomplish in his second term, strong majorities expect the president will be able to implement his health-care law and remove all US troops from Afghanistan. But in a sign that Americans remain skeptical about the likelihood of a true “grand bargain” with Congress on deficit reduction, only 40 percent say Obama will be able to reduce the federal budget deficit over the next four years. And only 37 percent now describe him as an “outstanding” or “above average” president – far below the 65 percent who described him in those terms after he first took office.
One big second-term stumbling block for most presidents, Bloomberg’s Mike Dorning wrote this week, tends to be contentious relations with Congress – an area where Obama has so far shown little inclination for real improvement. And in general, second terms tend to be far less productive for most modern presidents, in part because term limits effectively make them into “lame ducks” almost from the get-go. That means if there's a window for Obama to accomplish much of anything, it's probably in the next year or so. The fiscal-cliff talks could be one of the few opportunities he has this term to leave a big mark – if he's able to wrangle a long-term deal.
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Just in case the pending political apocalypse of the "fiscal cliff" wasn't enough to satisfy America's attention span, the US Senate on Thursday conspired to remind voters that another equally apocalyptic fiscal issue is looming out there on the horizon.
Yes, the debt ceiling will be making a comeback no later than early 2013, and senators decided to talk about it Thursday.
Not surprisingly, it illuminated the complicated politics and policy that go along with raising the national borrowing limit these days. And also not surprisingly, perhaps, it went nowhere, concluding with the somewhat comical scene of Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky filibustering his own proposal.
Welcome to Capitol Hill.
This is how it would work: The president would ask to raise the debt limit and Congress would have 15 days to pass a joint resolution of disapproval. The president could then veto their disapproval and require Congress to override his veto with 60 percent majorities in both bodies.
The proposal was important for two reasons.
First, it mirrored a plan originally proposed by Senator McConnell back in 2011 for raising the debt ceiling, giving Democrats the slim political cover to call it the “McConnell Provision.”
Second, it would shift effective control of the debt-ceiling debate from Capitol Hill to the White House – and would give Congress a very high vote threshold to block the measure, to boot.
Democrats – and some in the business community – like this approach because it would almost certainly prevent political confrontation from pushing the US into a default on its debts. When Congress and the White House tip-toed up to that possibility last summer, stock markets, consumer confidence, and business investment tanked. Actually defaulting could be catastrophic, economists warn.
But there’s another view on the debt ceiling.
On Wednesday night, Sen. Rob Portman (R) of Ohio sent a letter to the White House cosigned by 43 GOP Senators (enough to sustain a filibuster and block the legislation) telling the president, in short, to forget about his debt ceiling dream.
Senator Portman and his colleagues argue that the debt limit has helped focus Washington’s attention on the issue of debt and deficits, and that significant debt-reduction deals in the past have been attached to hikes in the debt ceiling.
“In short, nearly every significant deficit reduction law of the past 27 years has been linked to a debt limit debate,” the letter said. “For Congress to surrender its control over the debt limit would be to permanently surrender what has long provided the best opportunity to enact bipartisan deficit reduction legislation.”
But never underestimate the congressional urge to make your opponents look silly.
Out of the blue, McConnell came to the floor Thursday and asked for a vote on the president’s proposal.
McConnell was hoping to put Democrats in the awkward position of having to vote for ceding Congress’s authority over the debt ceiling to the president. As he put it in his morning remarks, “by demanding the power to raise the debt limit whenever he wants by as much as he wants, he showed what he’s really after is assuming unprecedented power to spend taxpayer dollars without any limit.”
Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada objected, putting Democrats in the position of blocking a vote on their president’s proposal. Yet within hours, Democrats sensed a way to turn the tables – and were ready to call McConnell’s bluff.
They returned to the floor and offered to bring the matter up for a vote immediately, concluding that, politically speaking, they would be happy to argue that fixing the debt ceiling permanently was the fiscally responsible thing to do – even at the cost of congressional authority.
“Our downgrade of America’s credit rating was not based on the state of our economy but the debt-ceiling debate,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D) of Illinois to reporters after the affair. “We are paying dearly for that already. So the Republicans are creating a situation which makes reducing the debt and deficit extremely difficult by creating this uncertainty about the debt ceiling.”
So what did Mitch McConnell do, facing a vote on his own suggestion from just hours before?
He offered two magic words – “I object” – and filibustered his own suggestion.
With that move, the threshold to pass the bill jumped from a simple majority to 60 votes and the vote was abandoned, though Senator Reid promised to push for a vote on the matter in the weeks to come.
The result? The entire debt-ceiling debate had gone no further than it started the day.
It may have been a coincidence, but it certainly seems highly symbolic that, on a day when the chattering class is increasingly buzzing about a likely Republican “cave” on taxes in the "fiscal cliff" negotiations, South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint announced he is leaving the Senate to head up the conservative Heritage Foundation.
The announcement was unexpected: Senator DeMint's term wasn't scheduled to expire until 2016. But in a way, the move isn’t all that surprising.
Consider: DeMint has been one of the Senate’s most far-right members, a tea party stalwart who, more than almost anyone else in that body, worked to recruit ideological allies and challenge those in his party he deemed insufficiently conservative.
He was known for his early championing of conservative stars like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. But in 2012, he also had some high-profile embarrassments – including Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, two candidates who lost Senate bids in states many Republicans felt they should have won. As Maine Sen. Susan Collins (R) told NBC’s First Read when asked about the “lessons” of DeMint’s tenure: "I think if you're interested in having Republicans control the Senate, you have to back Republicans who fit their state and who can win in a general election, not just in the primary.”
More to the point, DeMint may have decided that changing government in the way he envisions may actually be easier for him to do from the outside than the inside. Lately, some of the most effective pressure on Republicans has come from outside groups like the tea party, the Club for Growth, and of course, the ubiquitous Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform and author of the famous no-new-taxes pledge.
As DeMint himself said in his statement announcing his departure: “I’m leaving the Senate now, but I’m not leaving the fight. I’ve decided to join The Heritage Foundation at a time when the conservative movement needs strong leadership in the battle of ideas.”
Of course, DeMint’s decision may also reflect more practical considerations: Republicans failed to recapture the majority in the Senate, and it's a simple fact that it’s just not as fun to be in the minority. There is also a likely substantial difference in salary (the current president of Heritage reportedly makes more than $1 million a year).
But for now, it seems inevitable that the move will be cast as both a sign of the conservative movement’s limited clout on the Hill – as well as the growing power of its grass-roots networks.
Is actress/activist Ashley Judd positioned too far to the political left to get elected as a senator for Kentucky? That’s the charge one of her potential political opponents is making. Sitting Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky, in a radio interview Wednesday, said that Ms. Judd is “way too ... liberal for our country” and lives much of the time in the United Kingdom with her Scottish husband, race-car driver Dario Franchitti.
“I heard she lives in Scotland; I thought she was running for Parliament,” Senator Paul joked during his WMAL appearance.
He went on to point out that Judd has long opposed mountaintop-removal coal extraction, in which summit ridges are scraped off to allow easy access to coal seams beneath. Environmentalists say this method is polluting and destructive, but it is widespread in Appalachia, where mining is an economic mainstay.
“She hates our biggest industry, which is coal, so I say, good luck bringing the ‘I hate coal’ message to Kentucky,” Paul said.
In terms of the politics here, Paul has a point. Whether she’s too liberal for Kentucky may be an open question: Lots of Kentuckians don’t like their mountaintops ripped up, either. But her political involvement to this point has certainly focused on national issues as opposed to state concerns. That can be a problem in statewide elections.
Even incumbents get into trouble when voters think they’ve lost touch with home concerns. Remember Richard Lugar? He’s the most senior Republican in the Senate, or was. He got beat in 2012’s GOP primary, partly because of perceptions that he’d gone native in D.C.
Judd’s spoken out on a long list of causes that, however worthy, are national as opposed to Kentuckian in scope. She’s big on protecting young women against sex trafficking, for instance. She’s been a global ambassador for YouthAIDS, a group dedicated to raising awareness of this scourge among those ages 15 to 24.
She’s filmed public-service announcements for World Malaria Day and abortion-rights groups.
Yes, Paul isn’t exactly focused like a laser on local issues, either. He’s the emerging voice of the libertarian wing of the Republican Party. But prior to running for the Senate in 2010, he’d been head of a state antitax group, the Kentucky Taxpayers United, for decades.
As we recently pointed out, Judd is also involved in state-level politics – but not in Kentucky. She was a delegate to the 2012 Democratic National Convention from the Volunteer State, and she read out Tennessee’s vote totals during the roll call.
During that mini-speech, she spoke proudly about her adopted home: At the moment, she lives on a Tennessee farm when she’s not in Scotland. She promoted it as “home of former Vice President Al Gore,” among other things. We’re pretty sure that clips of this speech might find their way into GOP attack ads if she does decide to run for the Kentucky Senate seat.
To sum up, if she wants to jump into electoral politics, Judd’s got to do some bridge-building back in the state where she grew up and her family has deep roots. She’s getting talked up as an opponent for Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell in 2014, but if she decides she needs more time, she could run against Paul in 2016.
Some conservatives have another suggestion for someone they paint as a Hollywood liberal.
Is Karl Rove’s media career kaput?
This question arises as a result of reports that Mr. Rove has been benched by his main television outlet, Fox News. According to New York Magazine, top Fox officials have ordered that producers must get permission before putting Rove or fellow GOP pundit Dick Morris on air. It’s all part of an effort by head honcho Roger Ailes to freshen story lines and change the network’s cast of characters, writes New York’s Gabriel Sherman.
It didn’t help that Rove and Mr. Morris both predicted a big election victory for Mitt Romney. Both were way off compared with the new gold standard of punditry, New York Times polling guru Nate Silver. Also, there was that awkward on-air moment when Rove insisted that Fox was wrong to call Ohio for President Obama. He insisted it was way too early to make the call. The president ended up winning the Buckeye State by three percentage points.
“Multiple sources say that Ailes was angry at Rove’s election-night tantrum when he disputed the network’s call for Obama,” writes Mr. Sherman.
What’s going on here? Is former Fox fave Rove to be replaced by David Petraeus, the disgraced former CIA chief and military general whom Mr. Ailes urged to run for president? Mr. Petraeus needs a job, after all, and a stint as a network talking head would be lucrative and easy. Ex-New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer resurfaced as a pundit after his own peccadilloes drove him from office. Petraeus could do the same thing.
Well, we don’t know about that, but we’d put up money that Rove will be back and bigger than ever before this election cycle is out.
First off, as the New York Magazine story noted, part of the reason for Rove’s banishment has nothing to do with him. The election is over and the demand for electoral punditry has plummeted. Sure, there’s the “fiscal cliff” stuff, but that’s not nearly as popular with viewers. Trust us – we do “fiscal cliff” stories, too. The GOP primaries generated way more readers.
As the midterms approach next year, electoral politics will again rise in importance. Look for Rove to appear more on Fox then.
Second, Rove is a sharp guy. Liberals feeling shivers of schadenfreude at his current situation forget that he helped elect George W. Bush – twice – and since then has not been shy about criticizing Republicans for stuff he does not believe is in the best long-term interests of the party. Remember Christine O’Donnell, the “I am not a witch” Senate candidate from Delaware? Rove from the start called her unelectable. He tried hard to push Todd Akin out of the Missouri Senate race after Mr. Akin's controversial comments on rape. Plus, he’s still got a column in The Wall Street Journal from which to continue to spread his views.
Last, Rove is more than a pundit. He’s a player. He’s head of a "super political-action committee," Crossroads GPS, which continues to push Republican priorities in the wake of November’s loss. As recently as Wednesday, Crossroads released an ad hitting Mr. Obama’s “fiscal cliff” priorities, for instance.
Will donors angry at the GOP’s loss in the presidential race stop paying for such ads? It’s possible. But Rove works hard at maintaining support, both from top donors and the grass roots. Look at his Twitter feed: He spoke at the Kansas Livestock Association in late November. He’s got an upcoming appearance in Missouri at the Creve Coeur Club. He may be off Fox for awhile, but more than likely he’s coming soon to a stage in a state near you.
Currently, Congress must approve any increase in the amount of debt the United States government can take on – meaning a simple majority in the House and (usually) 60 votes in the Senate. Under a proposal floated Wednesday by the Obama administration, the bar for congressional intervention would be much higher: Lawmakers would need a veto-proof majority to block a debt-limit increase.
Such a change “would lift the periodic threat of default from the U.S. economy and remove politics from future debt limit debates, while preserving Congress’ essential role in spending, revenue and borrowing decisions,” Jenni LeCompte, a Treasury spokeswoman, wrote in a blog post Wednesday.
If Congress were to approve the president's changes to the debt-ceiling process, future increases would occur in a way similar to how Congress resolved the debt increase in the summer of 2011. Under a plan originally proposed by Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, President Obama asked for a debt-limit increase, and Congress could vote to disapprove of it. But if Congress could not come up with a veto-proof majority to halt an increase in the debt ceiling, the national debt limit would rise.
In the future, the Treasury said, the process to raise the debt limit would work as follows:
The president asks Congress for a debt-ceiling bump, and both chambers have 15 days to pass a resolution expressing their disapproval. If they do, the president can then decide whether to block his own debt-ceiling hike by signing the legislation or, more likely, vetoing the bill. If the bill is vetoed, a two-thirds majority of both chambers of Congress is needed to override him.
Treasury dubs the entire matter the “McConnell Provision,” but the Senate minority leader himself dismisses it. The original idea, he says, came at a particular moment – specifically, one at which Republicans won concessions from Democrats in the form of a boatload of spending cuts.
“The debt ceiling was raised last year only after the White House agreed to at least $2 trillion in cuts to Washington spending, and agreed to be bound by the timing and amount set by Congress – not [the president’s] own whim,” says Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senator McConnell. “The president wants to have the ability to raise the debt ceiling whenever he wants, for as much as he wants, with no responsibility or spending cuts attached. This is an idea opposed by Democrats and Republicans alike; it's a power grab that has no support here.”
No one disputes that McConnell’s office designed the debt-ceiling mechanism used in the summer of 2011.
"I decided to make [the president] own" the debt ceiling, McConnell told journalist Bob Woodward, according to Mr. Woodward’s book "Price of Politics." "We thought he ought to own it. It's part of my job to protect my members, if I can, against having to vote for it."
Congress's role is of direct concern because America will hit its new debt ceiling some time in the first quarter of 2013.
Republicans see the debt ceiling as a leverage point from which to extract spending cuts from Democrats.
Democrats and a growing group of business leaders view politicizing the debt ceiling as unnecessarily threatening the nation’s credit rating and deflating business confidence.
“I want to send a very clear message to people here,” Mr. Obama told a group of business leaders Wednesday. “We are not going to play that game next year. If Congress in any way suggests that they're going to tie negotiations to debt-ceiling votes and take us to the brink of default once again as part of a budget negotiation, which, by the way, we have never done in our history until we did it last year, I will not play that game because we've got to, we've got to break that habit before it starts.”
Hillary Rodham Clinton hasn’t decided whether to run for president in 2016. Even if she does, she may not make it official for some time. But Mrs. Clinton is already becoming something of a campaign juggernaut.
Two new polls out this week highlight just how formidable a candidate Clinton might be. According to a new ABC News/Washington Post poll, 57 percent of all Americans would support Hillary Clinton for president – including 66 percent of all women. She even wins support among 23 percent of Republicans.
Likewise, a Siena College poll of New Yorkers released Wednesday found a 75 percent approval rating for Clinton – her highest ever in that poll – with 54 percent saying they wanted her to run for president. (Thirty-nine percent said they want the state’s governor, Andrew Cuomo – another rumored 2016 hopeful – to take the plunge).
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Obviously, it’s very, very early, and presidential polls this far out are admittedly pretty meaningless, largely reflecting name recognition. And there’s no question that much of the warmth surrounding Clinton these days stems from her nonpartisan role as secretary of State, for which she wins plaudits from Democrats and Republicans alike (The ABC/Post poll found 40 percent of Republicans approved of the job she’s done at State). Were she to become an actual candidate again, that bipartisan goodwill could quickly fade.
Still, the combination of Clinton’s strong personal appeal and starpower, along with her still-active network of fundraisers and supporters, could easily clear the Democratic field.
As Washington remains mired in the slow-moving, eat-your-broccoli "fiscal cliff" negotiations, it's clear that speculation about Clinton’s future has become the capital’s most entertaining subplot.
She got a brief round of attention over the weekend for an instantly viral photo of her and actress Meryl Streep taking pictures of themselves together on Streep’s iPhone at the Kennedy Center Honors gala (ABC News called it the “picture of the night”). It was yet another item from the Hillary-Clinton-is-a-real-person file – for which the media seem to have an insatiable appetite – highlighting Clinton's fun side.
Even more buzzed-about was the slick video tribute shown at the Saban Forum, a Middle East conference. The film featured gushing praise for Clinton from current and former world leaders, from Benjamin Netanyahu to Tony Blair. As New Yorker editor David Remnick wrote, in a post titled “Hillary Clinton is running for president”: “The film was like an international endorsement four years in advance of the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary.”
Watching it, we were struck by the effort to portray Clinton as a Margaret Thatcher type of leader – a woman with a backbone of steel who’s not afraid to take on thorny challenges. Mr. Blair highlighted her “strength and toughness.” Mr. Netanyahu called her “strong and determined.” Her former Senate colleague John McCain noted, “she has a smile, she’s friendly – and yet, beneath that friendship is a person with very firm convictions.”
In some ways, the video was so heavy-handed – the soundtrack featured Bruno Mars crooning “you’re amazing … just the way you are” in the background –that it came across as an almost deliberate attempt to tweak reporters. It even featured a “wink, wink” kind of ending, with Netanyahu saying, “I don’t think we’ve heard the last of Hillary Clinton,” and with Blair adding, “I just have an instinct that the best is yet to come.”
She may, indeed, be preparing to run. Or she may just be toying with us. Either way, she seems to be having fun.
Are Republicans preparing to cave in their “fiscal cliff” talks with President Obama? That’s what some media reports now suggest. Wednesday’s New York Times, for instance, says senior GOP leadership aides are contemplating whether to abandon their opposition to higher tax rates for the wealthy. Conservative political correspondent Byron York of The Washington Examiner says flatly that retreat will happen. The only questions are when and what sort of reductions in Medicare, Medicaid, and other big entitlement programs Republicans might demand in return.
Republicans and Mr. Obama have been at loggerheads over the taxes-for-the-rich question almost from the moment the latter took office. After all this time, and so much rhetoric, why would the GOP give up now on the central issue in the fiscal cliff talks?
In arms control terms, one reason might be that the administration has conveyed a credible threat of escalation. In other words, Obama has threatened to go ahead and plunge off the “cliff” and allow automatic tax increases and spending cuts to occur if the rich’s tax rates don’t rise – and top Republicans believe him.
They believe him not because they think he’s a tough hombre but because they understand that the White House fears the “cliff’” less than they do. Many Democrats would be happy to see the Bush-era tax cuts expire, while many Republicans would see that as a catastrophe. Plus, if Obama and House Speaker John Boehner plunge arm-in-arm over this fiscal Reichenbach Falls, more voters would blame the GOP for intransigence than the administration. That’s what polls show, anyway.
Conservative analyst William Kristol frames it this way in an essay for The Weekly Standard: “Might it be prudent for Republicans to acquiesce, for now, to a modified version of Obama’s proposal to keep current income tax rates the same for 98 percent of Americans, while also insisting on maintaining the reduced payroll tax rate of the last two years ... and reversing the dangerous defense sequester? That deal would be doable, wouldn’t wreck the country, and would buy Republicans time to have much needed internal discussion and debates about where to go next.”
But before Democrats start planning their tax-rate victory parties, we’ve got a couple of comments. The first is that it’s one thing for the GOP leadership to give in. It’s another for such a compromise deal to pass the House. As Mr. Kristol notes in the essay cited above, many rank-and-file House Republicans have pledged to never vote for a tax increase, and they might not be in the mood to start now.
Speaker Boehner, in a press conference Wednesday, made something of the same point.
“If you look at the plans that the White House has talked about thus far, they couldn’t pass either house of the Congress,” he said.
Second, all the stories about Republicans preparing to fall back might be coming from a few Republicans who think that’s the party’s best course of action and are trying to convince their colleagues of that fact. They call this “floating a trial balloon,” and the current run of tax stories might be a big, helium-filled rubber sphere vulnerable to tea party adherents with darts.
After all, with a few exceptions, the Republicans who speak on the record about raising tax rates on the rich are either moderates (Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine), lawmakers who have promoted this for some time (Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia), or pundits (Kristol).
In public, the Republicans who count still deny they’re thinking of retreat. “An obsession to raise taxes is not going to solve the problem. What will solve the problem is doing something about the entitlements, taking on the wasteful spending in Washington,” said House majority leader Eric Cantor at Wednesday’s GOP press conference.
While that effort ultimately proved in vain – the treaty was defeated by conservative Republicans – Mr. Dole’s appearance in some ways served as a timely symbol of the larger battle going on within the GOP.
The former GOP majority leader, who has recently been hospitalized, just so happened to visit at a time when his party is struggling with a sharp, public rift over the “fiscal cliff.” Lines have been drawn between traditional “establishment” members – call them Dole Republicans – who tend to be more pragmatic and inclined to compromise, and tea party types determined to hold the line on taxes and spending.
Dole was a key player in Washington’s last big, bipartisan deficit-reduction deal: He helped construct the 1990 agreement in which President George H.W. Bush famously broke his “no new taxes” pledge in return for promised concessions from Democrats on spending and entitlement reform. That bill proved to be instrumental in reducing the deficit in coming years – though Mr. Bush never got credit, since he lost reelection to Bill Clinton, a fate conservatives have linked ever since to Bush’s tax heresy.
Since then, the party has shifted further to the right, with most Republican lawmakers signing on to Grover Norquist's pledge to never raise taxes. But lately, there have been signs of a possible countershift, as more Republicans appear open to the notion of tax hikes in some form.
As Washington wrestles with dire choices on taxes and spending, the big question is whether, in the current GOP, old-school dealmakers like Dole are little more than a dying breed – or if they may, in fact, become ascendant once more.
Certainly, in recent years, it has seemed more like the former. One after another, members of the old guard – like outgoing Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana and former Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah – have been ousted by challengers on the right, largely over fiscal matters. But in some cases (such as Senator Lugar’s), those primary challengers wound up leading the GOP into embarrassing losses – which has lately led to new cries for the reassertion of a stronger pragmatic wing.
In an opinion piece in Monday’s New York Times, former Republican National Committee research director David Welch wrote: “Republicans must now identify those who can bring adult supervision back to the party.... Dare I say it, or should I just whisper the word? We need 'the Establishment.' "
While conservative groups like the antitax Club for Growth are still threatening to fund primary challenges against lawmakers who don’t hold the line on taxes, those representing the more establishment wing – like GOP strategist Karl Rove – are now indicating they may play a bigger role in primaries as well, Mr. Welch notes.
House Speaker John Boehner’s decision Monday to strip several conservative House members of plum committee assignments may also reflect a new assertion of strength in the party’s pragmatic wing.
The intraparty battle is far from over, of course, and the ultimate winner may not be known for some time. But at the moment, there seems to be at least some political wind at the back of the Dole Republicans. And that in itself is not insignificant.