President Woodrow Wilson (D) was first elected in 1912, and less than two years into his presidency the Great War—now known as World War I—broke out in Europe. Wilson issued a declaration of neutrality, and repeatedly offered to serve as an independent mediator between the warring nations, but the Central and Allied powers had little interest in suing for peace at the time. The German submarine attacks on British ocean liners in the Atlantic, most famously the sinking of the RMS Lusitania, took many U.S. citizens’ lives . . . but Wilson, in keeping with popular opinion at the time, refused to begin making preparations to enter the war.
Many Americans, including prominent figures like former President Theodore Roosevelt (R), thought that the killing of our citizens on civilian ocean liners was an act of war against the United States, and that we should respond accordingly. Additionally, they felt that we were certain to be dragged into the war sooner or later anyway, and we might as well start getting ready with a massive military buildup. This grew into the Preparedness Movement, whose supporters even went as far as setting up their own private military training camps.
With 20/20 hindsight, we know that the advocates of preparedness were right . . . but for two years it had been a defeated, unpopular political position. Although Wilson had indeed quietly launched a massive military buildup in mid-1916, he still ran for reelection on an anti-war platform, and even adopted “He kept us out of war!” as his campaign slogan. His main opponent, Supreme Court Justice Charles Evan Hughes (R), was more hawkish than Wilson, but tried to downplay the war and avoid discussing it in his appearances due to its unpopularity. During the 1916 campaigns, Roosevelt—angry that preparedness didn’t seem to be catching on—was known to tell his acquaintances that the only difference between Hughes and Wilson was a shave.
Wilson won reelection on the implied promise that, in a second term, he would continue to keep us out of the war that was still raging in Europe. Privately, he almost certainly knew that he would not be able to keep us neutral much longer—as the 1916 military buildup would indicate. Less than a year later, Germany attempted to enter into an alliance with Mexico (cf., the Zimmermann Telegram) and initiated unrestricted submarine warfare against all ships—including American ships—that dared to approach Britain. The American policy of neutrality had become untenable. On April 2, 1917, Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war against Germany. On April 6 they obliged with overwhelming majorities—82-6 in the Senate, and 373-50 in the House.
Just one short year earlier, advocates of preparedness looked like fools. Roosevelt was caricatured as an old war-monger desperate to re-live his past glories. Wilson was likewise caricatured as an enlightened, modern pacifist who would keep us safe and secure here in our own private hemisphere. Reality has a way of stepping in soon-enough to correct these kinds of misconceptions.
When you’re right—as those in the preparedness movement were—you don’t have to worry too much about stinging political defeats. All you need to do is sit back and let the winners enact their policies. If you’re really right, and they’re really wrong, their policies will fail. Wilson was smart enough to realize, after a time, that he had been wrong. His policy of neutrality could not be sustained. So he pivoted from pacifism to preparedness in a matter of months, and that pivot—though politically dangerous—is what saved his legacy. If he had doubled-down on his failed policy, we would remember him not as the great war-time president, but as the fool who stood by as countless American lives, ships, and treasure went to the bottom of the Atlantic.
We are faced with a very different kind of debate in Washington today, but the two sides are nearly as intransigent as the advocates of pacifism and preparedness were in 1916. We are fast approaching the so-called ‘fiscal cliff’—a series of across-the-board federal budget cuts and tax increases that will take effect in the new year. It is an artificial creation, put in-place by Congress as part of the woefully insufficient debt limit compromise in 2011, and it can only be averted if the leaders of the Republican and Democratic parties can come to some kind of budget agreement that can make it past the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, the Democratic-controlled Senate, and President Barack Obama’s (D) veto pen.
Obama and Democratic Party leaders have proposed another round of laughably-insufficient budget cuts paired with a series of tax increases on ‘millionaires’ (sic) making over $250,000 annually, although they have recently offered to increase that threshold to $400,000. Of course, back in 2009, Obama said he opposed such a tax increase. “We have not proposed a tax hike for the wealthy that would take effect in the middle of a recession. . . . The last thing you want to do is raise taxes in the middle of a recession because that would just . . . take more demand out of the economy and put business further in a hole.” He has not explained why his position has changed.
Republican leaders countered with an offer that only raised taxes on actual millionaires, which was a concession that would have been unthinkable only a few months ago . . . and yet it was rejected outright by the President. The Republicans gave ground on almost every point of disagreement early-on, but the president initially refused to do the same. Only in his most-recent counteroffer did he increase the threshold for tax increases (mentioned above) and accept larger cuts to entitlements than his previous plans—the first real movement toward compromise from the Democratic side. Yet he still asks for 175 billion dollars in wasteful, ineffective ‘stimulus’ spending, and he actually reduced the proposed discretionary spending cuts from his initial offer.
The fact that Obama’s newest proposal finally began to show constructive movement does raise hopes that maybe the two sides really will reach a compromise before the end of the year . . . but I wouldn’t bet on it. Obama seems to have missed the real message of the November election, and still seems unwilling to actually sit down with his opposition and hammer-out a real compromise. His odd method of governing, simultaneously aloof and autocratic, seems unlikely to change any time soon.
This puts the Republicans in a very difficult position because, rightly or wrongly, they will bear the bulk of the blame if we go off the ‘fiscal cliff.’ Although I think that the cliff’s tax increases will be very damaging to the economy, at least in the short term, I am not particularly concerned about the cuts to federal programs that come along with them. Indeed, going off the cliff would get us a lot closer to a balanced budget a lot faster than avoiding it would. But it would be a bitter pill to swallow, and would be very unpopular.
So what other options do we have if our leaders can’t reach a compromise we we still want to avoid going off the ‘fiscal cliff’? I see only one, and the more I think about it the more I like it. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) has proposed that House Republicans walk away from the negotiations, bring Obama’s proposal to the floor as-is, and vote ‘present.’ This would allow Obama’s proposal to pass the House with just the Democratic votes while still allowing Republican representatives to say that they didn’t vote for it. The bill would easily pass in the Senate, and I imagine that President Obama would sign it into law.
In other words, maybe we need to give Obama exactly what he’s asking for.
We know his fiscal and economic policies are wrong (not that the Republicans’ plans are really much better—they aren’t). We know that raising taxes in these economic conditions is counterproductive at-best, as Obama himself seemed to know only a few short years ago. We know that the proposed cuts to government programs are woefully insufficient. At-best, Obama’s proposals will accomplish nothing except avoid the short-term pain of the ‘fiscal cliff.’ At-worst, they will make our fiscal and economic situations even worse in the coming years.
While the Republican Party would likely bear the brunt of the public’s anger if we go off the ‘fiscal cliff’ at the end of this month, it is President Obama and the Democratic Party who will bear the brunt of their anger if we avoid the cliff, do what he says, and our fiscal and economic situations still don’t improve.
So let’s call the President’s bluff. Let’s give him what he wants. When the rent comes due—when reality steps in to correct our misconceptions again—Obama will face the same choice that Wilson once did. One option would be to dig-in on the failed policies; this will tarnish his legacy and reflect poorly on the Democratic Party’s ability to adapt. His other option would be to pivot, as Wilson did; this would probably greatly improve his historical standing, but it would also help his erstwhile political opponents. Like Wilson’s pivot helped vindicate Roosevelt and the supporters of preparedness, an Obama pivot on fiscal and economic policy would similarly vindicate the ideals of fiscal conservatism.
Like I said earlier: When you’re right, you don’t have to worry too much about stinging political defeats. All you have to do is sit back and let the winners enact their policies. If you’re really right, and they’re really wrong, their policies will fail.