It’s World War I, Not World War II (And Obama Isn’t Neville Chamberlin)

It’s hard to call a completely arbitrary and self-inflicted legal impediment to rationality a “crisis,” but I think it’s now fair to use the word to describe the debt limit. Because no family prints money, controls interstate commerce or stimulates the economy, the “we need to run government like your family budget” analogy is horrible. But Robert Kuttner has a more apt–and troubling–analogy: World War I:

For those who think that a default won’t happen because it is in nobody’s interest, think back on World War I. It was in nobody’s interest. Yet it destroyed Europe’s common civilization, and ushered in nearly a century of economic instability and war. World War I occurred because both sides dug in and assumed the other would have to blink first. But that was a miscalculation. Instead of a last minute deal, we got four years of trench warfare, economic ruin, and millions of wasted lives. Oops.

It’s a decent analogy, because World War I was a horrific cataclysm precipitated by irresponsible bumbling. But Kuttner’s problem is how he attempts to attribute blame for the current mess, and his failure to recognize that’s where his analogy doesn’t work:

This may sound churlish at such a moment, but in addition to blaming the recklessness of today’s Republican party, the man who deserves substantial blame for this impending economic doomsday is Barack Obama. For two and a half years, he has been all but training the Republicans, Pavlov fashion, to keep rejecting compromise. He has done this by rewarding them with a treat every time they up the ante or move the goal posts.

Obama’s job, as a crisis president, was to define the nature of the economic disaster and the way out of it, to move public opinion in his direction, and then to make it very costly for Republicans to resist. That’s that the great crisis presidents have done.

Instead, his manner—conciliation at all costs—in addition to costing the Democrats a mid-term blowout, has only produced a more radical and intransigent Republican Party. Even this week, his manner at his address to the nation was earnest, professorial, even pleading. So if the Republicans, like the Europe’s leaders of 1914, miscalculate and create disaster, the responsibility will partly be theirs, but partly our overly eager-to- please president.

There are two huge problems with this part of Kuttner’s argument. First, in analogizing the causes, he’s mixing up his World Wars. By blaming Obama for Republican behavior, he’s insinuating an accusation of appeasement. World War I wasn’t preceded by a series of concessions to Germany. Rather, Germany had created the most powerful economy in the world and the most powerful military in Europe. That threat led Russia and France to align for their own protection, while Austria-Hungary aligned with Germany. Austria’s response to the assassination of its royal heir Franz Ferdinand threatened to diminish Russian influence in the Balkans. Russia responded by mobilizing troops not only on the Austro-Hungarian border, but also on Germany’s. Concerned about a possible attack by Russia, Germany preemptively attacked not only Russia, but also France. Germany didn’t expect Great Britain to come to the defense of France, but they did, and with the support of the British people due to Germany’s decision to attack France by going around the French border and through neutral Belgium.

In non-diplomatic terms, World War I was caused by a clusterfuck. It was World War II in which appeasement, to Hitler, was a primary cause. This conflation leads to Kuttner’s more serious problem: there’s little evidence that Obama actually has appeased the Republicans in material terms, and there’s no evidence that even if he had that it has contributed to the radicalization of the Republican Party.

From the moment Obama became President the GOP’s strategy has been unremitting intransigence. The Republicans used the filibuster–a word absent from Kuttner’s piece–at a rate never seen in our history. They held up major appointments like those of Kathleen Sebelius and Hilda Solis for months, and have approved fewer of Obama’s executive and judicial branch nominees than those of any previous president. With the exception of the stimulus, which the Mainers and then-Republican Arlen Specter let through the Senate (with big assists from Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman to limit its effectiveness), no Republicans in either the House or Senate have worked with the White House or the Democratic leadership to achieve any major domestic policy goals. As Matt Ygelsias reminded everyone the other day, if the Senate voted by majority rule, the policy achievements of the Obama administration–already impressive–would be tremendous. But instead, “the overwhelming story of American politics in 2009 and 2010 was of Congress refusing to enact progressive measures that, had they passed Congress, would have been signed into law.

The reason for Republican intransigence wasn’t Obama’s weakness. Rather, it’s that most Republicans in Congress are ultra-radicals, and those who aren’t began to see what was happening to Arlen Specter and Bob Inglis and Robert Bennett and Mike Castle and Charlie Crist, and they eventually concluded that to work with the president on anything would be seen by their base as treason and could cost them a primary.

Liberals have long decried the media’s obsession with balance. Unfortunately a lot of progressives have the same desire to balance out blame for defeats and thwarted aspirations. They know Democrats had majorities in the House and Senate, so it must be Democratic perfidy that blocked entry to the promised land. Structural arguments–it’s the filibuster, stupid–are emotionally unsatisfying. But Obama ran on hope and change, and there isn’t enough of it, and he doesn’t get angry and pound his fist (as if he could), so the easy and emotionally satisfying explanation is that the Republicans wouldn’t be on the verge of ruining the economy if Obama hadn’t appeased them. That conclusion isn’t just wrong, it also evades the uncomfortable truth that for reasons beyond the control of Barack Obama, our system is screwed up enough that nihilistic Republicans can destroy the economy, and there may not be much that any of us can do about it.

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