WASHINGTON — Here is my nomination for the lowest moment of the “fiscal cliff” debate. Right before Christmas, President Obama met with Speaker John Boehner in the Oval Office. “He told Mr. Boehner,” according to The Wall Street Journal, “that if the sides didn't reach agreement, he would use his inaugural address and his State of the Union speech to tell the country Republicans were at fault.”
It is bad enough that an American president should threaten to deploy his inaugural address in a vicious budget debate. It is worse that the threat seemed credible and unexceptional. Usually a presidential election involves a reset of American politics, with both sides (at least temporarily) forced to engage in the rhetoric and rituals of healing and unity. The 2012 election was not even a short pause in our swift partisan descent.
In cliff negotiations, Obama had one overriding goal: to make Republicans vote for rate increases on the wealthy. For 20 years the refusal to raise taxes has been one of the core issues that held together the disparate groups of the GOP. If Obama saw his job as bringing together a broad coalition to fix the long-term debt problem, he would have maneuvered Democrats to take on some of their core issues as part of a package, just as Republicans had to do. But Obama did not view his job this way. He wanted Republicans to swallow their humiliation pure.
Congressional Republicans are left with less influence than some apparently think. The debt ceiling is a form of leverage they can't responsibly use. A partial government shutdown or full implementation of the sequester are less toxic alternatives, but of questionable utility. (Threatening liberals with the prospect of huge defense cuts — a part of the sequester — is an attempt to menace them with their deepest desire.)
Given this weak Republican position, Obama must be tempted by a shiny political object: the destruction of the congressional GOP. He knows Republicans are forced by the momentum of their ideology to take positions on spending that he can easily demagogue. He is in a good position to humiliate them again — to expose their internal divisions and unpopular policy views. It may even be a chance to discredit and then overturn the House Republican majority, finally reversing his own humiliation in the 2010 midterms.