Willful Ignorance

“It is impossible to make a man understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it,” the muckraking American journalist Upton Sinclair told audiences when he was running unsuccessfully for governor of California in 1934. The Republicans controlling today’s US House of Representatives appear to confirm this observation.

What they cannot or do not want to understand is that President Obama has already offered them much of what they said they wanted if they were to call off the sweeping autopilot budget cuts or sequestration they obliged him to sign into force on Friday night.

This, as the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein was the first to report, they could have have discovered simply by visiting the White House website.

There, plain as day, is Obama’s plan for reducing the already shrinking federal budget deficit by $4.2 trillion over the coming decade. As of Sunday, House Majority John Boehner was still insisting the White House had no plan.

Not only is there a plan, it contains concessions on so-called entitlements whose alleged absence Republicans have been citing as grounds for refusing to negotiate. These include reduced cost-of-living increases for Social Security pension cheques and increased means testing for publicly subsidised retiree health benefits.

Klein reported that when he met with senior Republicans for a background briefing on Thursday, they were simply unaware of these things.

This is hard to fathom without concluding that members of the Republican majority in the House of Representatives continue to assume their livelihoods depend on their not reaching any accommodation with the president unless they get 100 per cent of what they want.

For many there can be no compromise because they are ideologically committed to taking a meat cleaver to the federal government. They are not interested in simply putting government on a fiscally responsible trajectory by cutting or reforming existing programmes.

They wish to shrink government revenue, period, whether it comes from higher taxes rates on the wealthy, new taxes on, say, carbon emissions, or reduced tax expenditures and closed loopholes.

It is perhaps no coincidence that the Republican Party, once the party of the great emancipator Abraham Lincoln, now owes much its strength to the former slave states which rebelled disastrously against federal power a century ago and still chafe against the centre.

Not all Republicans are of this ilk, of course, but breaking ranks has become increasingly career threatening. To be willing to negotiate with Obama in good faith is to risk finding oneself up again a well-funded primary opponent.

Obama is readying for a showdown in the 2014 mid-term elections. He and his advisers believe the best hope for achieving his agenda — gun control, a living minimum wage, immigration reform, meaningful steps to address climate change — is to regain the full Democratic control of Capitol Hill he lost in 2010.

The Democrats need to pick up 17 seats in the House to regain control. This will be a challenge. It is rare for the party of an incumbent to gain seats during the incumbent’s second term although it did happen on Bill Clinton’s watch in 1998 while he faced impeachment for lying about sex.

Democratic candidates won a majority of the votes cast in last year’s House races. It did not translate into seats. The Republicans controlled the post-2010 census demarcation of constituencies in more states than the Democrats and used that edge to their advantage. The edge will still hold in 2014.

Polls show Obama’s agenda is broadly popular, but the trick will be to convince the public that whatever pain sequestration inflicts is the fault of Republican extremists out of step with the concerns of middle class America.

To make the case, Obama’s political team are retooling his presidential campaign machine as “Organising for Action” (OFA), a non-profit tax-exempt entity legally permitted to raise unlimited funds to press for the president’s priorities.

OFA’s initial fundraising goal is $50 million, at least half of which is expected to come from a core group of donors giving $500 000 or more apiece.Grassroots supporters will be mobilised around the country to lobby Congress, hold rallies and an act as a counterweight to conservative groups like the National Rifle Association.

The initiative is not without controversy. Top donors will be invited to sit on a national advisory board which has quarterly meetings with the president. This has Republicans and some good government groups denouncing OFA as a potentially corrupt “cash for access” scheme, a charge adamantly rejected by the White House.

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