A successful politician needs luck as well as skill. And nobody these days is luckier than Barack Obama, who has the good fortune of facing an opposition party that seems bent on committing political suicide.
Welcome, in other words, to the GOP budget blueprint authored by alleged party brainiac Paul Ryan - and endorsed by Mitt Romney. Republicans might just as well have summoned a midget to play hoops with the president one on one, because yesterday Obama engineered the rhetorical equivalent of a slam dunk. The Ryan plan, he said, is "so far to the right, it makes (Newt Gingrich's 1994) Contract With America look like the New Deal."
Why the GOP would craft such a plan and thus cede the center to Obama is a mystery to me, but I suppose that ideology is destiny. And Romney, the winner of three more primaries last night, is clearly hostage to ideology. All of which makes it easier for Obama to position himself as the voice of sanity, as someone who understands that government has a vital role to play in backstopping and bettering people's lives.
Basically, the Ryan plan (passed last week by the Republican House) aspires to balance the federal books long term by decimating most of the programs that non-ideological Americans care about - including Pell grants for students, Medicaid for low-income people who lack other health options, food stamps for the financially strapped, crime funds for police departments, environmental protection for those who breathe, air-traffic control for those who fly, you name it.
You know the famous quote from conservative commissar Grover Norquist, where he says he aspires to shrink government "down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub"? That's the Ryan plan, the quintessence of bathtub politics.
It seeks to somehow balance the books by keeping the Bush tax cuts for the rich (big surprise), adding new tax breaks for the rich (big surprise), earmarking most domestic expenditures for health care, ramping up defense spending (even military financial analysts have said that's not necessary) - and making up the difference by drastically slashing domestic spending on almost everything else.
Indeed, the nonpartisan Center for Budget and Policy Priorities says that 62 percent of Ryan's proposed federal cuts would hit the programs that help lower-income Americans. And as for the one percenters at the top of the scale, the Ryan plan would be another boon. The Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center says that your basic millionaire would get $265,000 in new tax cuts.
And Romney thinks he can sell this plan to the average swing voter? What a lucky gift for Obama. When an opposition party lurches toward the extreme, it opens up the mainstream middle. So in his speech, which was timed to trump Romney's primary night trifecta, Obama duly filled the middle - by pointing out, for instance, that even Ronald Reagan, "who, as I recall, is not accused of being a tax-and-spend socialist, understood repeatedly that when the deficit started to get out of control, that for him to make a deal he would have to propose both spending cuts and tax increases," which is precisely what Reagan did, successfully so.
Then came the money quote. Reagan, said Obama, "could not get through a Republican primary today. The positions I’m taking now on the budget and a host of other issues, if we had been having this discussion 20 years ago, or even 15 years ago, would have been considered squarely centrist positions. What’s changed is the center of the Republican party."
Clearly, the Obama campaign has moved into general-election mode, fighting Romney for every news cycle. And if you question whether the Romney-Ryan alliance isn't lucky grist for the incumbent, check out what David Frum, the conservative commentator and ex-Bush speechwriter, said on the air last night. He must have been AWOL when the Kool-Aid was circulated. I yield the floor to Frum for the remainder of my allotted time:
"President Obama is highlighting a vulnerability that Republicans chose to inflict on themselves. The Ryan plan is something the Republicans did to themselves. A lot of us have been banging the plan, saying it wasn't necessary. Yes, you have to have a plan to get to budget balance, but...you don't have to utterly rule out revenue increases, and you don't have to have a big tax cut at the same time. That gets lopsided, that's dangerous.
"Politically, it's not great policy, either. And the president is driving the point home. So the Republican party is sort of trapped in a pincer, with President Obama on one side, the (conservative) activist base on the other, and Mitt Romney squeezed by both...That's not good policy, it's not good politics. Mitt Romney has been pushed there, and it's an unfortunate place to be."
By the way, Frum has authored a new political novel that opens with the defeat of America's first black president. That could prove to be a big seller on the Republican right. If the Ryan plan turns out to be Romney's albatross in November, conservatives can always celebrate Obama's downfall by taking refuge in fiction.
Regarding last night's primaries: The big news (or what passes for big news) is that, in winning Wisconsin, Romney split the self-identified "very conservative" voters with Rick Santorum, and he drew 38 percent of the evangelical Christians (for him, a big share). Those stats suggest that the party base is finally, grudgingly coalescing behind him.
Santorum naturally vowed to soldier on, hoping that an April 24 Pennsylvania win would catapult him into Texas next month, but, for most in the party, the scintillating slogan seems to be:
Vote for Mitt. This Thing Has Dragged On Long Enough.
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