Let's Get One Thing Straight: It's Republicans Who Are Picking Fights, Not President Obama

| Fri Jan. 18, 2013 12:45 PM EST

David Brooks is worried that Democrats, sensing weakness, will spend the next four years trying to divide and destroy the Republican Party:

He’s already started with a perfectly designed gun control package, inviting a long battle with the N.R.A. over background checks and magazine clips. That will divide the gun lobby from suburbanites. Then he can re-introduce Bush’s comprehensive immigration reform. That will divide the anti-immigration groups from the business groups (conventional wisdom underestimates how hard it is going to be for Republicans to back comprehensive reforms). 

Then he could invite a series of confrontations with Republicans over things like the debt ceiling — make them look like wackos willing to endanger the entire global economy. Along the way, he could highlight women’s issues, social mobility issues (student loans, community college funding) and pick fights on compassion issues, (hurricane relief) — promoting any small, popular spending programs that Republicans will oppose.

Politics is everywhere, and I don't doubt that Democrats would like to take advantage of Republican divisions. What party wouldn't? But look: if one party is dominated by a bunch of loons who make every political skirmish into a sign of the apocalypse, you really can't blame the other side for exposing this. What choice do they have?

Take cabinet appointments, for example. President Obama obviously wanted Susan Rice to be his secretary of state, and spent several weeks in an effort to win over Republicans. But it was impossible. She was a perfectly mainstream choice, but for obviously crackpot reasons Republicans insisted that if she were nominated they'd turn the confirmation process into a scorched-earth battle. And in the end they got their scalp: Obama backed down and nominated John Kerry instead.

And what did that get him? Nada. The fight immediately turned to Chuck Hagel and then Jack Lew. These are both pretty standard mainstream candidates too, but we were nonetheless told repeatedly that Obama knew they were plainly unacceptable and was just trying to pick a fight.

So what's he supposed to do? After winning reelection handily, is he supposed to agree that he won't nominate anyone to serve in his cabinet who isn't pre-approved by the most hardcore members of the opposition party? Of course not. That's crazy. Hagel and Lew are perfectly ordinary nominees, and Obama wasn't picking a fight with anyone by selecting them. He was just nominating people who agree with his policy positions. It was Republicans who insisted on turning this into a mortal insult.

The same is true for Brooks's examples. It's Republicans who picked a fight over the debt ceiling that makes them look like wackos. It's Republicans who picked a fight over hurricane relief, earning the ire of Chris Christie and other members of their own party. (What was Obama supposed to do? Not propose any hurricane relief?) Ditto for gun regulations, where it's the NRA taking an absolutist position, not the president. Obama is plainly willing to compromise here, just as he's plainly willing to compromise over the budget. It's Republicans who aren't.

Brooks thinks Democrats should skip this stuff entirely. Not propose any significant legislation at all. Hell, the GOP is apparently so fragile that he's not even supposed to propose small stuff that might be popular (!) because it would do damage to a Republican party held hostage by—what was Michael Gerson's phrase? Oh yes: the "momentum of their ideology," which, like the law of gravity, literally forces Republicans to oppose even small, sensible spending programs.

This is crazy. You can't expect a president to back down on everything simply because the opposition party is in thrall to a bunch of fanatics who will interpret any action at all as a step on the road to tyranny or financial ruin. You have to try to get things done anyway. And along the way, if that exposes the fanatic faction as a millstone that needs to be dealt with, isn't that all to the good? After all, Brooks plainly has no sympathy for the tea party wing of the GOP. How else does he expect their influence to wane except by exposing their crackpottery to public view?

UPDATE: Jon Chait writes pretty much the same thing here, but better than me.