When legislation that would have extended criminal background check requirements for gun buyers failed in the Senate two weeks ago, opinion makers began considering the possibility that President Obama’s second term — just three months old — was already on the cusp of failure.
Mere days had passed since he’d introduced a budget designed successfully to impress upon political elites that congressional Republicans represent the main obstacle to steady governing in Washington, and already those same elites were regressing to the reflexive view that legislative gridlock is an automatic byproduct of partisan polarization and weak leadership in the White House.
Obama attempted in two separate public appearances this past week — a comedy routine at the White House Correspondent’s Association Dinner last Saturday evening, and a daytime press conference at the White House on Tuesday — to disabuse the press of the idea that Congress’ inability to pass even modest and popular legislation is a consequence of his failure to engage in the mythical armtwisting of LBJ or Lincoln.
“I cannot force Republicans to embrace … common-sense solutions,” Obama said at the press conference, referring specifically to budget gridlock. “I can urge them to. I can put pressure on them. I can rally the American people around those common-sense solutions. But ultimately, they, themselves, are going to have to say, we want to do the right thing. And I think there are members certainly in the Senate right now, and I suspect members in the House as well, who understand that deep down. But they’re worried about their politics. It’s tough. Their base thinks that compromise with me is somehow a betrayal. They’re worried about primaries. And I understand all that. And we’re going to try to do everything we can to create a permission structure for them to be able to do what’s going to be best for the country. But it’s going to take some time.”
Considering the incentives of the minority party in a polarized political system with a divided legislature, Obama’s remarks rang true. And in that context, his mysterious claim to be creating a “permission structure” for the GOP sounded almost like an allusion to a Rube Goldberg device that could transform Republicans from tireless obstructionists into reluctant partners — an unlikely contraption, but perhaps the only thing short of total lawlessness that might yield Republican support for a budget deal or any other major bipartisan enterprise.
The intentional vagueness made it the most interesting moment in his press conference. Unfortunately it failed to persuade the very elites who had raised the question of his effectiveness in the first place.
“A permission structure?” mocked New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. “He might do better to remember what Jeremy Irons’s pope says on ‘The Borgias,’ ‘Do you not see that even the impression of weakness begets weakness?'”
The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank snarked: “It’s the president’s job to lead, and to bang heads if necessary, regardless of any ‘permission structure.'”
Their dismissiveness belies a genuine confusion about what exactly Obama was describing. The words “permission structure” may be unnecessarily colorless, but they reveal the very sort of problem solving and organizing efforts that critics of his leadership claim he lacks.
Neither the concept nor the term “permission structure” is new to Obama’s closest advisers. Eliciting what David Axelrod has called “third-party authentication” — behavioral signals designed to create unlikely bedfellows — has been key to their political and legislative strategies for years.
In this instance, the “permission structure” refers to Obama’s efforts to convene a bipartisan group of senators who can reach a budget deal without his direct imprimatur, according to both White House and Senate aides. His recent dinners with members of both parties were designed to ferret out the Republican and Democratic senators who are likeliest to agree to a mix of higher taxes and lower spending, much like the defunct gang of six did in 2011.
“Obama’s trying to see if he can’t get some of those rational actors from the dinners — or at least the people who came across as being earnest and willing — to tackle the grand bargain talks again,” said a Senate Democratic leadership aide. “The White House trying to set up a process where rank and file Republicans are working with rank and file Democrats and once that’s done, step back [and] create the space for those discussions to take place among rank and file lawmakers outside the context of another Obama-Boehner style negotiation.”
Obama’s putative absence is key to creating the political space Senate Republicans need to negotiate in good faith. As Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) revealed in an interview about the gun bill’s failure this week, “There were some on my side who did not want to be seen helping the president do something he wanted to get done, just because the president wanted to do it.” (Toomey is one of the Senate’s most conservative members, but will face a tough re-election in 2016 and not coincidentally was an author of the failed gun bill.)
If the senators can use that space productively, their efforts will be part of a two-pronged strategy: First, force House Republicans to choose between cooperation and rejectionism by building strong bipartisan support for a budget bill in the Senate; second, let Republican Senators, rather than Obama himself, be the emissaries for that legislation.
It bears an uncanny resemblance to a strategy Axelrod used to help elect Michael White, a black candidate, the Mayor of Cleveland Ohio more than 20 years ago, which The New Republic described in a 2008 Axelrod profile dated November 5 — one day after Obama defeated war hero John McCain in a historic landslide.
“‘David felt there almost had to be a permission structure set up for certain white voters to consider a black candidate,’ explains Ken Snyder, a Democratic consultant and Axelrod protege. In Cleveland, that was the city’s daily newspaper, The Plain Dealer. Largely on the basis of The Plain Dealer’s endorsement and his personal story, White went on to defeat Forbes with 81 percent of the vote in the city’s white wards.”
But if it were as easy as remaining invisible, Obama would have reached a budget deal a long time ago. The truth is there’s a lot more to his permission structure than just holding back enough to allow senators to shake hands on a budget deal, whether Obama sees it that way or not. Before he can sign a bill he needs the House of Representatives to pass one. That means winning buy-in from House Republicans — a much more recalcitrant group than their Senate counterparts — and that means creating an other-worldly mix of atmospheric and procedural and rhetorical conditions that will allow GOP leaders and a big group of their members to give Obama something he wants, that they hate, while claiming they won a big fight…all without appearing to have consorted with him in any way.
“For the past two to three years, the only way we can get anything done is if Republican leadership can find a way to get around their Tea Party,” said another highly placed Senate Democratic aide. “It’s slightly absurd that we have to focus on helping Republicans get their own caucus in line but that has to be one of our priorities because they’re not going to do it all on their own.”
For the purposes of a budget deal that includes higher taxes, replaces sequestration, and takes the debt limit off the table, the aide notes that creating a “permission structure” amounts to manipulating the legislative and political processes in ways that will allow Republicans to obscure the fact that they’ve caved.
That’s a much greater challenge than passing legislation in the Senate, where several Republicans have expressed willingness to buck the party’s anti-tax orthodoxy. It may not be possible. But if it is, then an overwhelming Senate vote will be necessary but insufficient.
House Republicans will also need to feel a sense of urgency — one that doesn’t exist yet under sequestration alone — and also, most likely, a plausible assurance that they weren’t simply jammed by the Senate, even if that assurance hangs from a thin reed.
One increasingly likely way to generate a contrived sense of urgency would be to link Senate budget action with the need to increase the debt limit later this year. In an ironic twist, Republican leaders would have to turn the same debt limit threat they used to mug President Obama in 2011 on themselves and their own members.
Obama’s proved he has the mettle to call the GOP’s debt limit bluff, and House GOP leadership would suddenly be faced with a choice between using the debt limit as an opportunity to put an end to the budget wars while pocketing concessions from Obama, and tanking the Senate bill and raising the debt limit essentially for free. (Free that is, if you don’t count the damage they’d inflict upon themselves with the broader public.)
That’s a fuller blueprint of the permission structure. But even if John Boehner and Eric Cantor decided to hop on to it, they’d still have to fix its remaining weaknesses. Procedurally, any “grand bargain” will be a revenue bill, which per the Constitution must originate in the House of Representatives. And yet, as the leadership aide noted, “anything you do along these lines is a Senate-first strategy.”
Similarly House Republicans would once again have to abandon the “regular order” of committee hearings and bill mark ups and bring the legislation directly to the floor, with at best a limited opportunity for members to offer and vote on amendments.
These are easy problems to solve in theory, and in practice they often takes care of themselves. But when the point is for House Republicans to obscure their willingness to work constructively with Democrats, addressing them becomes much more difficult.
Likewise, if House Republicans want their own imprint on the bill — even in a stage-managed way — they’ll have to introduce and own the very entitlement benefit cuts they claim to want, but are terrified to propose themselves.
So it’s a rickety structure. But the alternative for Obama is to limp along with sequestration, or at best perpetually underfunded discretionary programs, and cede debt limit politics to the GOP for the foreseeable future.
House Republicans aren’t sitting around waiting for Democrats to mold the country’s broken budget process into something workable. They’re debating what to ask for in return for raising the debt limit amongst themselves, on the assumption that the Senate will do nothing. They know they ultimately can’t strong-arm Democrats like they did two years ago. But that doesn’t mean they can’t try — and perhaps even pocket something meaningful.
One ransom under consideration would create a legislative fast-track — much like the budget reconciliation process — for tax reform. Advocates envision a two-tranche debt limit increase: first, when the process is created; then again once Obama signs the reforms into law.
Three senior aides say the Senate Democratic leadership won’t cede policy to the GOP in exchange for a debt limit increase, particularly if the reforms themselves would have to be revenue neutral, as House Republicans would likely insist.
But they’re engaged in a pincer movement of their own, and are hoping to recruit retiring Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) — the powerful Finance Committee chair — into their efforts.
“No one knows what’s going to happen” Baucus told the Washington Post, shortly before announcing he will not seek reelection. “[S]omething’s going to have to give. And maybe what gives is some instructions for Finance and Ways and Means to come up with a solution.”
If the “permission structure” collapses, then, it won’t just consign the country to another year or more of budget chaos. It will also pose a real threat to the Democratic Party’s consensus position on taxes, which Obama spent most of his first term building.