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The economy trumps Trump
Obama has deflected the birthers. The real danger for the president now is the GOP's political ploy to dead-end the economy
Robert Shrum
Robert Shrum
S

o Donald Trump, after tending to his combover, emerged from his helicopter in New Hampshire to pronounce that he was "proud" and "honored" to "have been able to get" the president to release his birth certificate. Trump, of course, is always proud of himself; he’s rolling both in money and arrogance. As for the honored part, he's already made sure of that. His name adorns — or defaces — hotels, golf courses, and condos across the nation. The one place we can be sure it will never be is where he aspires to inscribe it — on the door of the Oval Office.

Trump is in Palinesque territory with the electorate as a whole. While he's running at or near the front of the GOP field, 64 percent of Americans in a USA Today/Gallup poll say they just wouldn't vote for The Donald, period. Despite his dollars, this makes sense: Why would we entrust the future of the economy to someone whose branded properties have a history of serial corporate bankruptcy?

Even the stupid know it’s the economy that counts — and not just for the easily discreditable and self-discrediting Trump, but for Obama and his ultimate Republican opponent. The birther silliness, and slurs, never mattered except to an angry white minority who will seize any pretext and invoke any code word to delegitimate the first African-American president; thus Trump slid from his initial slur to disparaging Obama's qualifications for Columbia and Harvard. Was Trump president of the Harvard Law Review?

In any case, the president's status as a natural-born citizen was never in doubt except to conspiracy theorists and political cowards in the GOP leadership who evaded the question lest they offend the nutty right. Did some Manchurian cabal plant a phony birth notice in a Honolulu newspaper in 1961 while plotting to take over the White House nearly half a century later?

Nonetheless, the media are as irresistibly drawn to the Trump freak show as to the manufactured pageantry of an otherwise irrelevant royal wedding. (By the way, won’t William soon need his own combover?) But the real story of consequence came Thursday morning; economic growth in this year's first quarter had slowed from 3.1 percent at the end of last year to 1.8 percent, slightly below the guardedly pessimistic estimates and expectations of the expert consensus.

Thus, the 2012 economic — and political — landscape seems newly uncertain. Some attribute the recent decline to the winter weather; this is a time-honored reason — or rationalization. More persuasive is the undeniable drag of drastic reductions in state and local budgets that have blunted the Keynesian stimulus of federal spending. Still, economists generally agree that the slowdown was, as a senior analyst at Moody’s explained, "a bit of a soft patch" — a bump in the road on the way to recovery.

If that’s right, the now birth-certificated Obama would be well en route to a second term. But there remains real danger for the president and his party in the conscious if unconscionable GOP effort to dead end the recovery by playing on popular misconceptions about spending and deficits — cutting the federal budget far and fast on the pretext of restoring confidence, but with the darker purpose of reversing growth and raising unemployment. 

The showdown will come in the impending vote to increase the debt ceiling. The Republican strategy here is increasingly clear — force the president to accept draconian rollbacks instead of phased deficit reduction as the economy improves. If he yields to that, blame him as the economy and job creation falter. If he resists, blame him for a deadlock on the debt ceiling that could imperil America's credit rating, explode interest rates, and conceivably replicate the financial meltdown of 2008.

We are only in the first act of this drama. A robust stock market is sending signals that the folly will be averted — that it’s ultimately too risky for politicians on both sides. And the president does have a ready weapon, conveniently handed to him by ideologically driven House Republicans. What they actually want to repeal and replace is Medicare — and they're now feeling the heat at town halls even in relatively conservative congressional districts. They may have inadvertently brewed a recipe for Tea Parties in reverse.

Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats are pressing the issue. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has decided to schedule a vote that will force potentially vulnerable Republican Senators to endorse or renounce this overwhelmingly unpopular move to render seniors hostage to the ungentle ministrations of the health insurance industry.

But events may spiral out of control. The House GOP is abusing the budget and debt process to circumvent constitutional assumptions and impose minority rule by misusing its control of only one house of the Congress. Instead of decisions made by majority vote on both sides of Capitol Hill, ratified by the president or rejected by his veto, the chamber without a filibuster and, according to its new class of fervent anti-government firebrands, should blackmail the Senate, the White House, and the nation into specific, historic and devastating cutbacks that Americans adamantly oppose. 

Despite a tough line designed to appease his own fevered members, House Speaker John Boehner may blink in the end, agree on a debt ceiling increase that mandates reasonable deficit reduction over time, and then pass it with Democratic as well as Republican votes. This could jeopardize his speakership — Eric Cantor's Macbeth lurks in the shadows — and Boehner may calculate or miscalculate that the controversy can be manipulated to brand the president with the scarlet letter of default.

Obama has the grander stage and the bigger microphone. How he navigates this passage will be decisive test of his political skills and prospects; Bill Clinton met a similar challenge brilliantly in 1995. Any Republican maneuver to provoke default, no matter how disguised, could be unmasked. And even if the GOP succeeded in forcing a budget that damages the economy, the president could win anyway in 2012 given the parlous field of GOP candidates — and the nature of the party's primary voters who are drawn to the more extreme and the less electable.  

The Obama campaign would relish a race against Donald Trump. That won’t happen unless the Republicans rush into a reincarnation of the 1964 party that entirely lost its head; the Democrats may have to settle for a consolation prize, the hypocritical Newt Gingrich, the falsely genial Mike Huckabee, or the chameleon Mitt Romney. That's why a number of the smartest GOP strategists are drawn to the unknown Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor who’s just about to leave his post as Obama’s ambassador to China in an attempt to become Obama's opponent in the next election.

Nearly 25 years ago, Donald Trump sat at a small informal luncheon in the sun-splayed courtyard of a Paris hotel. I’d never met him before, and I've never talked with him since. But that day, over the salad, he asked me if it was worth his time to go to the Louvre. The answer was obvious — at least to me — and the next morning he went for 45 minutes. Equally obvious was Trump’s grievance against Paris itself. He didn't like the city much because everybody there paid attention not to him but to his then wife. Everywhere they went — which was largely to the inner-sanctums of couture — he said that it was 'Madame Trump this, Madame Trump that.' He craved attention then. He got it this month.

Now attention turns away from Trumped-up distraction to what really counts. The country's character is at stake — and the presidency too. The next few weeks could be the most important of the 2012 campaign.

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