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‘Let them eat peas’

The headline in the left-hand lead of The New York Times on Tuesday read: “Obama Grasping Centrist Banner in Debt Impasse.” 

Wait a minute. Isn’t this the same president the Republican Tea Partiers decried as “socialist”? 

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How could he possibly find himself described as a centrist? Wasn’t that the word his most ardent leftward base hates the most?

The irony of that headline, and the fact it actually reflected a growing perception of Obama in the center gaining traction throughout the country, might just be one of those turning-point political moments that will be long remembered in Washington, maybe as the day that Barack Obama sealed his reelection for four more years.

I tried to imagine if I were at the White House as a political strategist, what would I be hearing? 

I could almost hear the quiet voices in the Roosevelt Room, after the senior meeting with the chief of staff — a group of political strategists sitting around the large, impressive conference table, under the gaze of Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt. 

I could imagine they were sitting there in disbelief, trying to figure out how their boss seemed to have a knack — skill? luck? — somehow to always land on his feet, no matter what. “How did he pull this off?” they must have been thinking.

So I imagined the conversation that ensued. Here’s a good guess: 

“So we got shellacked in 2010, and our only hope was a bounce-back of the economy.”  

“It looks like a bouncing ball, all right — but down, not up. Unemployment on the rise again, job creation nowhere. I thought we were in a heap of trouble.”

“So how did this miracle happen?”

“Remember Bill Clinton after the disastrous 1994 elections? He was even worse off than we were in 2010. How’d he do it?”

“Don’t you remember the word ‘triangulation’? That means he positioned himself as a man of the center, with Democrats on his extreme left and Republicans on the extreme right allowing him to stay right there.”

“Wow, how’d he do that?”

“Pretty simple — he picked three issues he cared about and stood up to his liberal base on each one — welfare reform, NAFTA and a balanced budget.” 

“Then what?” 

“Then he stood up to the Republican right by refusing to cut basic social-safety-net programs and dared Gingrich to shut down the government. And Gingrich and the Republicans in the House took most of the blame for the government shutdown.”

“So can Obama pull the same thing off on the debt ceiling?”

“It didn’t look that way, but then John Boehner and Eric Cantor played into his hands. Obama finally embraces the principles of Simpson-Bowles — puts major cuts, Medicare, even Social Security on the table for cuts, and God help us if Boehner and Cantor had said yes.” 

“And aren’t you worried that Obama has angered our Democratic Party base — I mean, we’re even getting criticized by Ed old-reliable-Obama-down-the-line Schultz.”

“I know — thank goodness.”

“And then Nancy Pelosi goes on the tube and vows never to touch Social Security — and there’s your triangle. Perfect.”

“What I don’t get — how did Obama arrange for Eric Cantor and the House Republicans to oppose even closing the corporate jet tax loophole?”

“Beats me.” 

“Every poll shows 70 or 80 percent of the American people opposing the Republican priorities in protecting all tax loopholes for the wealthy — how did the president manage to get the Republicans to be on the wrong side of an 80-20 poll result?”

Silence in this imaginary room.  

“There must be a sound bite that sums it all up — something that can win over independents, and the center-right, center-left, putting us at the top of the triangle. Anyone have any ideas?”

“ ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’ ”

“No, that’s already been used.”

“I’ve got the Republican slogan about budget cuts on the programs that the poor and the needy depend on.”

“What?”

“ ‘Let them eat cake!’ ”

“No, that’s already been used.”

“So what? It fits, doesn’t it? If Marie Antoinette were alive today, she’d be for Michele Bachmann!”

Laughter, high-fives. 

“Well, I’ve got one for the president to tell the Republicans: 

“ ‘Let them eat peas!’ ”

“Perfect!” All said in unison; high-fives around the room. 

Davis, the principal in the Washington law firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates, which also specializes in legal crisis management, served as President Clinton’s special counsel from 1996-98 and as a member of President George W. Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board.  He is the author of the book Scandal: How ‘Gotcha’ Politics Is Destroying America.