Before scheduling any budget negotiations at the White House, on Capitol Hill or at Camp David, President Barack Obama and congressional leaders should go see Steven Spielberg’s classic new film, “Lincoln.”
It’s the best movie about Washington politics I’ve seen. The centerpiece is the American icon, Abraham Lincoln; it brilliantly captures him doing what politicians are supposed to do, and today too often avoid: compromising, calculating, horse trading, dealing and preventing the perfect from becoming the enemy of a good objective.
In 1865, the issue was getting the votes to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, banning slavery. Today’s fiscal negotiations seem trivial by comparison. Yet achieving success requires the same ingredients: bargaining, bartering, bluffing and cutting a few dubious deals.
This is what Americans too often forget about Washington: Our representatives are hired by the voters not to be priests or philosophers, but to be politicians.
There is no greater hero than Lincoln; we extol his courage, his eloquence, his resilience and his sense of humor. Rarely is his political cunning celebrated. That was the quality that enabled his final great triumph, the end of slavery.
This essential attribute is exquisitely captured by Spielberg and the actor Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln, resolute, consummately political, tortured and ambitious; a visionary who uses a story or a joke to defuse tense situations. When it’s suggested that the vote on the amendment in the House is in the hands of God, the president observes, “I don’t envy His task.”
As with big issues in Washington, then as now, the drama is about choices with consequences: a re-elected Lincoln decides to push the anti-slavery amendment at the risk of prolonging the Civil War. There are compelling figures: William Seward, his secretary of state and shrewd political confidant; Thaddeus Stevens, the fiery abolitionist who tempers his principles to achieve the legislative goal, and craven and cowardly congressmen.
Mainly it’s about political leadership. To persuade some, Lincoln appeals to their nobler instincts about the evils of racial hatred. With others, he does what’s necessary. With the outcome in the balance, a trio of fixers brought in to help is told: “You will procure me the votes.”
This is the way presidents, most recently from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan, get their way: maintaining a core principle and tactical flexibility. Joe Califano who, as a young man, was President Lyndon Johnson’s point man on domestic legislation, remembers this quality as the essence of LBJ.
In 1968, the Fair Housing Bill was stalled in the Senate. The president, Califano recalls, was told by Sen. Walter Mondale that they were hopelessly one vote short of breaking a filibuster. On the list of opponents, Johnson spotted Alaska Democratic Sen. Bob Bartlett and remembered that he wanted a big maritime agency project. Johnson called the Alaskan, ordered the agency to give him the project. Bartlett voted to end the filibuster, and the measure outlawing discrimination in housing was approved.
A Model Cities bill intended to benefit large urban areas was resisted by Maine Democratic Sen. Edmund Muskie. Johnson directed Califano to include a city from Maine, even though the state didn’t have any large metropolitan areas. “What city?” the aide asked. “Any goddamn city he wants,” LBJ replied.
“Johnson knew everybody’s price,” Califano observes. “He knew what he had to give to get what he wanted, and he never gave more. But he was always willing to give.”
That is the mindset required for the current fiscal negotiations. On the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy, Obama starts with a strong hand. The presidential campaign wasn’t edifying; it was rife with attack ads and vague promises.
An exception is the tax cuts for households making more than $250,000; on Jan. 1 the marginal top rate on these incomes is scheduled to revert to 39.6 percent from 35 percent. Obama campaigned on the wealthy paying more. His Republican opponent, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, was opposed to any increase and wanted to cut tax rates for the affluent.
Obama’s position prevailed. House Republicans didn’t get a similar mandate, though they retain their majority. Democrats got more votes nationally in House races, and the tax increase for the rich was an issue in very few contests.
With some fits and starts, odds are that in the next several weeks the White House and Congress will get a short-term deal to avoid the Jan. 1 deadline that would trigger across-the-board tax increases and automatic spending cuts.
Much more problematic next year is reaching a grand bargain that provides a short-term stimulus and addresses long-term chronic deficits. There would have to be concessions, tradeoffs and favors bestowed for votes. Politicians might look to 1865 as a model for this uphill quest.
Last week, the president hosted Spielberg and Day-Lewis for a showing of “Lincoln” at the White House. He’d do well to go to another screening of the film, and this time invite House Speaker John Boehner.
Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist.