Barack Obama and the Ghost of LBJ
President Obama has apparently reached his decision on Afghanistan, which he will explain to the public on Tuesday night. If early leaks intended to get us more used to–and presumably comfortable with–the content are correct, he is going to give General McChrystal most of what he wants, although with some time constraints (the “off ramps”) and implicit implications that the commitment is constrained, not open ended. Details to follow.
I personally believe he has reached the wrong decision, that Afghanistan is an impossible quest best left to those supposed hard, realistic Don Quixotes who cannot see a lost cause when they see one. TheWashington Post offered what is probably the consensual rationale for going ahead: doing less won’t work, and although we aren’t sure doing more will, it is the best we can do. Let’s double down on that inside straight and ignore what Einstein said about insanity. Anyone who believes this all will end well has a far more intimate relationship with the tooth fairy than I do. In my view, the only way to quite losing in Afghanistan is to leave. Period!
What about the ghost of LBJ? As older readers will recall, LBJ was faced with three contradictory imperatives in 1965. First, he wanted to push the package of reform measures collectively known as the Great Society and including landmark civil rights and entitlement programs. Second, he decided that he was not going to be the president who lost Vietnam and thus ordered a series of escalations that predictably did not work but mired the country in that conflict for eight more years before the public became so sick of it that we finally left. Third, he had to figure out how to pay for all this. His options were deferring the Great Society and financing Vietnam with actual money, raising taxes so he could pursue both simultaneously and fiscally responsibly, or by fiancing both with red ink (deficit spending). Then, as now, there was no political stomach for the fiscally responsible course of tax increases, and LBJ feared if he did so, his domestic priorities would be in jeopardy. In these circumstances, he chose to pursue both the Great Society and the war and pay for it without raising taxes. The result, of course, was substantial deficits that helped lead to an economic crisis in the years after the war was over.
President Obama faces a similar scenario today. The economic stimulus, reforms in education and health reform form his version of the Great Society, and the war in Afghanistan–whether it is otherwise reminiscent in other ways or not–is his version of Vietnam. With these competing priorities, he also faces the question of how to pay for all this, and his options are similar.
Recent estimates suggest a certain symmetry to his options: the price tags of health reform and the war in Afghanistan are estimated to be about the same–about $900 billion over the next decade. In terms of programs, he has three choices. He can pursue health reform and pay for it with Afghanistan savings; he can finance Afghanistan and defer health reform to pay for Afghanistan (which is what the Republicans basically want him to do); or he can pursue both programs. Guess which one he will choose?
To give away the answer, assume he chooses door number three (pursuing both). How does he pay for it? Choosing the option means that cutting other spending is probably not even close to meaningful, so he has two choices: raise taxes or bleed red ink. The GOP, certainly not known for its responsibility or helpfulness in these matters, opposes both: no new taxes and no more deficits. Their answer is to junk the current health reform package and let the “market” solve the problem. Chalk up one more for the health insurance lobby! In their most pious possible way, Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, et. al. will intone they want both to protect national security and to make the population well–just not the way Obama suggests. Beyond cutting taxes and genuflecting before the Market Gods, the Grumpy Old Party, of course, has no clue.
This leaves Obama in an impossible position that is somewhat of his own doing. He has painted himself into a corner by labeling Afghanistan a righteous war vital to the United States (a “war of necessity”) and thus can hardly sneak away from it. At the same time, he will not back away from health reform, which is to him what the Great Society was to LBJ. I do not know how he feels personally about the only truly responsible, “big boy” option (raising taxes, probably substantially), but he is not dumb enough to press for this in an election year. If he mumbles a lot on Tuesday night, this is why.
There is one more unsettling BHO-LBJ comparison. LBJ desperately wanted to be remembered for the Great Society, a legacy that includes many familiar programs like Medicare, but what he is mostly remembered for is Vietnam. Obama, I suspect, wants mostly to be remembered for health care and other domestic reforms. But will he be remembered principally for the failure in Afghanistan that is as certain as the commitment he makes on Tuesday? It is not a happy prospect.