Reading tea leaves is a tricky business under the best of circumstances, especially so when partisan invective obscures the prospects of reasoned compromise. Both sides staked out hard positions in the political run-up to the government shutdown, with the Democrats taking the prize for incendiary rhetoric. Nothing from any of the major players on the Republican side even remotely approached the fusillade of scorn, insults and character assassination from Democratic leaders.
President Obama could have restored a modicum of civil discourse, but then Dan Pfieffer, one of his senior White House aides, compared House Speaker John Boehner and other congressional Republicans to terrorists and suicide bombers. Obama should have fired Pfieffer, but instead effectively endorsed his aide’s nonsensical metaphor. Similarly destructive language has been repeatedly heard from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California. Mothers used to wash their children's mouths with soap for uttering less offensive words than those heard from these Democrats in recent days.
Former Office of Personnel Management General Counsel Joseph A. Morris offered an instructive reminder in the Washington Post on how standoffs between the White House and Congress were handled on six occasions during the Reagan era: “In none of these instances did the world come to an end. In each of them, the president engaged in good-faith negotiations to resolve the impasse. Reagan never refused to talk seriously with [House Speaker Tip] O’Neill and House Democrats. Each side approached shutdowns as an ‘action-forcing event’ in which hard bargaining would take place.” In all six cases, Reagan and O’Neill came out of their talks smiling after making concessions with which they could live. Neither party engaged in the childish name-calling that poisons the capital today.
Resolving the present impasse can only start when Obama, Reid and Pelosi cool their rhetorical jets and start talking reasonably with Boehner and his Republican colleagues. Here’s where reading the political tea leaves is important, because Boehner hinted on Thursday where such talks might go. “With Obamacare proving to be a train wreck, the president’s insistence on steamrolling ahead with this flawed program is irresponsible. We must provide American families basic fairness and the same exemptions from the law that big businesses have already been granted.”
In other words, Democratic leaders should concede what everybody else knows — Obamacare isn’t ready for prime time. Obama has already unilaterally changed the law by delaying the employer mandate, so he should now take Boehner’s cue and embrace a delay in the individual mandate to give the government time to fix the technological breakdowns that are plaguing the program. Push back the effective date of Obamacare by a year to Jan. 1, 2015, and let the American people decide in November 2014 whether to repeal the law or revise it. Such a compromise would put both sides on equal footing to make their respective cases to the ultimate decision-makers.