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Are Democrats Reverting to Wimps?

What part of "You're holding all the cards" don't the Democrats understand?

President Obama has the GOP over a barrel on taxes. Don't believe me; ask Grover Norquist, who just cried "Uncle!" His group, Americans for Tax Reform, now says (with more accommodation than logic) that it "will not consider" raising tax rates on income above $1 million (House Speaker John Boehner's latest proposal) to be "a violation of the Taxpayer Protection Pledge." If a $1 million threshold doesn't violate Norquist's pledge, then Obama's proposed $250,000 threshold doesn't, either. (Me, I still prefer a $100,000 threshold.) Norquist was never the Washington colossus he was purported to be, but he remains a decent indicator of where the leverage lies.

Meanwhile, Democrats have Republicans over a barrel on the filibuster. They've been planning to change Senate rules at the start of the new Congress to require all filibusters to be the talk-yourself-hoarse kind. The change can be achieved by simple-majority vote. Some people call this the "nuclear option," but the Republicans have abused the filibuster so badly that they've lost whatever right they once had to complain. The New Yorker's Hendrik Hertzberg recently calculated that during the past three years Republicans achieved "very nearly one filibuster for every single goddam day the Senate is in session" [italics and impiety his, though I endorse both]. Meanwhile, I've calculated that during the current Congress the Senate's ratio of cloture votes (roughly speaking, filibusters) to bills passed doubled. This after Majority Leader Harry Reid two years ago extracted (under threat of filibuster reform) a promise from Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to ease up on filibusters. McConnell recently achieved self-parody by filibustering his own bill!

Nice hands to be dealt, right? But there is something in the modern Democrat that abhors the raw exercise of power as a little bit, I don't know, vulgar. Franklin Roosevelt didn't have this handicap. Neither did Lyndon Johnson. But their latter-day successors do. 

I thought Obama had been cured of his impulse to over-compromise by the 2011 debt-ceiling showdown. But now Obama has offered to raise the tax-increase threshold from $250,000 to $400,000, which might (depending on the details and according to Citizens for Tax Justice) yield as little as 24 percent of his earlier proposal. Obama has also agreed to "chain" Social Security cost-of-living increases, a benefit cut disguised as a technical fix. Chaining might be a necessary concession as the best of a very bad lot of spending-cut ideas—it's certainly better than raising the age for Medicare eligibility—but playing this card when there are two whole weeks left before the fiscal-cliff deadline (which we'd in any case be better off not meeting, because it isn't a cliff, it's a slope, etc., etc.) is just bad poker.

Meanwhile, over on Capitol Hill, the Huffington Post reports that Sen. Carl Levin is on the verge of persuading his fellow Democrats to drop the talking requirement for the filibuster (even though they've got enough votes, even with Sen. Dan Inouye's death, to pass it). Instead, the Democrats would favor an almost entirely cosmetic change eliminating filibusters on certain procedural votes (which is all Reid really wanted anyway). Levin argues that the majority can force filibustering senators to do the Mr. Smith routine under current rules. But to do so they need to keep 51 senators on the floor, and that would be difficult if not impossible to achieve.

TNR's Noam Scheiber argued pretty forcefully the other day that the Democrats won't achieve much of anything during the next four years unless Republican extremism is broken. I agree. I don't want Obama to offer a $400,000 threshold. I want him to make the Republicans beg, "Pretty please, sir, may we have a $250,000 threshold?" I don't want to see Senate Democrats compromise with Republicans on the filibuster. They tried that two years ago and we saw where it led. I want the Democrats to get rid of the silent filibuster for good, so that if a Republican wants to filibuster a debt-ceiling increase, he'll have to yak and yak and yak until he wets his pants on the Senate floor. These Republicans need a schoolin', and I wish to God Obama and his fellow Democrats had more appetite for giving it.

And, oh, Democrats? When a gun-control bill comes to the floor (and it's looking like last week's ghastly Newtown child-massacre might actually result in one), don't be too quick to negotiate with the newly chastened Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association. Lives may depend on learning to stand your ground.