On Friday, July 13, 1962, in what would come to be called his “Night of the Long Knives,” British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, desperate to reverse his own sliding political fortunes, abruptly fired seven of his cabinet ministers, including Selwyn Lloyd, the chancellor of the exchequer. The British politician Jeremy Thorpe said of Macmillan’s sacking of Lloyd, “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his friends for his life.”
The acid wit of Thorpe would have been appropriate in 2010 Washington when, stung by criticism from House Democrats that he had caved in secret negotiations with Senate Republicans by abandoning his long-held opposition to extend tax cuts to the wealthiest 2 percent of taxpayers, President Barack Obama uncharacteristically lashed out at those who had been his most steadfast allies over the last two stormy years.
Sometimes criticized for failing to publicly show emotion, a petulant Obama chastised fellow party members of yearning for the “satisfaction of having a purist position and no victories for the American people.”
Let the record show that nobody in the White House lost a job because of the election returns on Nov. 2. The past two years have basically only cost the president a couple of dozen points of popularity in the Gallup Poll. But having to cast politically painful votes on President Obama’s initiatives in heath care, economic stimulus, financial reform and cap-and-trade put at least 100 House Democrats at re-election risk. Sixty-three of them paid with their jobs.
On each of those career-threatening votes, Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., has stood with Barack Obama. In the first three days after what critics branded “the Obama-McConnell deal” was announced, Welch and 53 House Democrats had signed a letter opposing the deal for being both “fiscally irresponsible“ by adding another $900 billion to the $14 trillion national debt (does anyone recall last week’s “historic” Presidential Deficit Reduction Commission report?) and “grossly unfair” in advantaging the already advantaged.
He argues that by agreeing in the deal to the lowest inheritance tax rate since Herbert Hoover’s administration, the president’s compromise would unjustly reward “39,000 families with $25 billion.” That’s quite accurate. According to the Congressional Research Service, the proposed inheritance tax would apply to only 0.14 percent of estates in 2011 and collect just $11.2 billion. If the current law were to take effect, the inheritance tax would reach 1.76 percent of estates and the federal revenues would be $34.4 billion.
In the final analysis, character is destiny. Of every conservative political leader, American voters have the same question: Does he have a heart, is he capable of compassion? Of each liberal political leader (from whose ranks Obama comes), American voters have another question: Does he have steel in his backbone? Is he tough enough?
After the president announced the tax deal, Democratic pollster Peter Hart addressed that very matter. “What the America public is looking for and what they are trying to understand is his backbone Where will this man stand up, and where will he fight?”
Concerning the perception of the president’s being more eager to switch than to fight, Hart said: “The difficulty with what happened is that instead of going eyeball to eyeball (against the Republicans) and then blinking, (people) saw him -- at 40 yards -- blinking.”
Hart, who supports the deal Obama struck -- even though he believes that Obama reached it both “too early” and “too easily” -- analyzes that voters are still unsure, almost halfway through President Obama’s term, just “how firm, how tough he is -- and two years in, unlike (with) other presidents, they don’t have a good measure of that.”
Of this whole tax-cut episode, somebody, not Jeremy Thorpe, said, “You can tell an awful lot about how big a man is by what makes him angry.”