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Archive for 2010



Fishwrap: Krusty and Santa Meet Landslide Harris

Saturday, December 18th, 2010

The key question raised during Act II of Jerry Brown’s road show on the state budget in L.A. this week came from a local Long Beach vote grubber, as reported by the eagle eared Steve Harmon:

James Johnson, a Long Beach councilman, asked Brown how he intends to figure out the contradiction voters have between their desire to fully fund schools and their hostility to taxes.

Brown answered, partly in jest: “That’s why we’re here — we’re hoping one of you people will come up with it...

Fat chance.

As cuspidated cartoonist Tom Meyer illustrates today, it is precisely this bifurcated attitude of pixie dust magical thinking among Californians that almost-Governor Krusty must  confront and disabuse, lest he swiftly  disappoint the Golden State populace, and find himself as instantly unpopular and despised as his recent predecessors.

While Calbuzz has eye-glazingly droned about this political phenomenon,   it is a point worth repetition and elucidation (as demonstrated with some frequency by the “two Santa Claus theory” propounded by our friends over at Calitics , for example), the better to keep  front of mind the electoral landscape that provides such fallow ground for the chronic polarization that afflicts habitues of the Capitol.

Bottom line: As he surveys this political topography, Brown could do worse than to consult the wisdom of Calbuzz’s favorite despot, Chairman Mao:

The cardinal responsibility of leadership is to identify the dominant contradiction at each point of the historical process and to work out a central line to resolve it.

Ho, ho, ho.


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The audacity of audaciousness: Aging relics that we are, your Calbuzzards confess that we’ve been catching up on our sleep since all the excitement of last month’s election.

Nodding off at nappytime must have been the reason we missed the extraordinary news that Kamala Harris had been elected Queen of All She Surveys at some point over the last couple weeks.

What else could explain the overweening self-importance, pompous pretentiousness and garden variety delusions of grandeur that led Ms. Attorney General-elect to summon the state’s press corps to announce with trumpets blaring – Make Way, Make Way for the Empress of River City! – her “Transition Leadership Team,” a bloated and overblown engine of hot air and fecklessness festooned with gobbledegook about “best and brightest minds,” not to mention 11 – eleven, count ‘em, eleven – sub-committees and the enlisted services of Warren Christopher and George Shultz, California’s greatest living symbols of political decrepitude.

Transition to what? Give us a break.

“She’s got this queen complex and it will not play well here,” one veteran Sactown operative told us, summing up the prevailing cognoscenti view. “It’s ceremony for the sake of ceremony — all style, pomp and circumstance and no substance.”

Let us count the ways this thing is wrong, wrong, wrong:

1-Queen Kamala is stumbling into office on the weakness strength of a thoroughly underwhelming victory of 46.1-45.3% over L.A. DA Steve Cooley, a miniscule edge, eked out only after weeks of vote counting, which ain’t exactly what you like to call your sweeping mandate.

2-Landslide Harris clearly benefited from incumbent AG Brown’s coattails (or Meg Whitman’s undertow, depending on how you look at it) yet presumes to insult and trash by implication his stewardship of the office,  declaring that now that SHE’s here, we can finally be about the work of deciding “how to fix the state’s broken criminal justice system,” as she modestly put it in her big announcement.

3-The new AG’s framing of her ascension as the Long-Awaited Arrival of the One is in sharp contrast to both Brown and Lite Gov-elect Gavin Newsom, who so far have handled their transitions in a low-key, no-frills way (despite following incumbents of the other party) more befitting, you know, a routine transfer of political power after an election.

4-Harris’s shaky record in San Francisco, with its botched handling of a cop killing, an illegal immigrant multiple murderer and a shameful scandal over tainted evidence that got scores of drug cases tossed, normally would have been enough to bury her, had she not opposed a guy who ran the worst campaign in the history of the world, but that, in any case, is not exactly a case study for developing what she brags will be  “smart and innovative policies.”

5-The newbie top cop (not to mention the rest of us) would be better served by her spending at least a little time scouting out the bathrooms before leading us all into a golden age of law enforcement nirvana.

Much of Harris’s grandstanding, of course, likely has less to do with the operations of the AG’s office than with her wasting no time beginning to position herself for a future governor’s race. No matter how many pull-ups the 72-year old Krusty can do, younger ambitious Democrats (see: Villaraigosa, A.and Newsom, G.) can’t help but calculate the odds he’ll be a one-term governor and nobody wants to be left at the starting gate.

Must reads of the week or whatever:

Why April 11, 1954 was the most boring day in history.

You probably won’t be surprised to learn what America’s most annoying word is.

Terrific yarn from Neon Tommy about the guy who took the iconic picture of the Kent State massacre.

Amid all the chatter about Brown eyeing a special election, Timm Herdt seems to be the only one (besides Big Dan Walters Himself) who bothered to look at the calendar.

Both Peggy Noonan and Michael Gerson have excellent takedowns on the shabby way Obama handled the tax deal.

At least Krusty’s not alone.

Dr. H Returns, Calbuzz Classic, Weird Holiday Dogs

Wednesday, December 15th, 2010

Despite his annual struggle against Seasonal Affect Disorder, Calbuzz staff psychiatrist Dr. P. J. Hackenflack has bravely battled his way through the stacks of mail that have piled up since the election, and graciously agreed to return today to answer our readers’ burning psycho-political questions.

Dear Dr. Hackenflack,
Now that the election’s over, is Meg Whitman feeling any regrets about the way she treated her housekeeper, Nicky Diaz?
– Gloria La Rouge, West Hollywood

Totally. She can’t find anyone to clean the kitchen or do the wash, let alone bring in  the mail.

To the Honorable P.J. Hackenflack,
I’ve noticed that Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa all of a sudden is traveling around the country trying to raise his profile. Wussup with that?
– Cass A. Nova, Reno

Ignore the political speculation. Just happens Tony V’s run through all the female anchors in L.A. and feels ready to move up to network news babes.

Dr. H,
Why is Dianne Feinstein running for another term at her age? I’ve seen younger faces on cash.
– Tom C. Silicon Valley

She’s determined to pass Strom Thurmond on the all-time Senate geezer list.

Yo Doc,
A friend said Jerry Brown is going to make his wife his chief of staff in the governor’s office. Do you think that’s a good idea?
– Jacques B, Paris, France

Yo Jacques – the doc is still trying to finagle invites to the big inaugural parties, so no way I’m touchin’ that one, dude.

To whom it may concern,
One of the Hollywood blogs said Arnold Schwarzenegger is in line to play the lead in a remake of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” True?
–  J.M. Stewart, Indiana Pennsylvania

False. He’s actually signed to play Willy Loman in an update of “Death of a Salesman.”

Sir,
I saw on the news that Senate Republican leader Bob Dutton sat in the audience instead of onstage at Jerry Brown’s first public hearing on the budget. Do you think that was an effective protest?
– Darrell S, K Street Mall

Bob who?

Hello Dr. Hackenflack,
Ana Matosantos seems like a nice, smart person, but it seems strange that Jerry’s keeping on Arnold’s finance director. Can you shed any light?
– Harry P, Sacramento

Turns out Governor Gandalf was time traveling when he met her and thinks he’s rehired Adriana Gianturco.

Hey Doc,
Now that San Francisco’s mayor’s been elected lieutenant governor, there’s a big fight to replace him. Who’s the best candidate?
– W. Brown Mineola, Tex.

Clearly Gavin Newsom. He has absolutely nothing else to do for the next four years.

Calbuzz Classic: Less than three weeks before he takes the oath of office as governor, Jerry Brown is already making moves to assume the powers of the state’s chief executive.  So we thought it was an appropriate time to start measuring Brown’s acts against his words in the campaign. Here’s a piece we ran on April 13, 2009, based on the first major interview with Krusty that focused on his bid for governor:

Reflecting on his first incarnation as California governor, Jerry Brown says he was overly concerned with the importance of new ideas and not focused enough on the practicalities of getting things done.

In the first extensive interview about his 2010 gubernatorial bid, Brown told Calbuzz that if he wins back, at the age of 72, the office he first captured when he was 36, things will be different.

“Then I emphasized new ideas, now I would emphasize management more,” he told us. “It was very exciting then, but without losing that sense of innovation, I’d be more practical-minded, very detailed, focused on follow through and consensus building . . . I’d be looking for people who are seasoned administrators.”

In a telephone interview last week, Brown said he is motivated to seek a second turn as governor by his own “unspent potential,” a notion he credited to the anthropologist Gregory Bateson: “The key to flexibility is not spending all your potential.”

Speaking in rushing streams of high-speed sentences, Brown talked of everything from how to attack Sacramento’s partisan dysfunction to the hair products used by Democratic rival Gavin Newsom. Boasting that his two terms as governor were “good years” for California, he rattled off a list of accomplishments, while uncharacteristically acknowledging some shortcomings.

“My sense of management has been refined and developed,” said the man who, as governor, was known to mock and belittle the pathways, processes and procedures of state government and those who work in it.

His candidacy still formally undeclared, Brown only occasionally used the phrase “if I run,” in portraying himself as a master politician whose experience in elected office at every level – mayor, attorney general, state party chairman, to name a few – affords him unmatched understanding of government organization and operations which he would wield at California’s intractable problems.

“I have a greater sense of how things get done and don’t get done,” he said. “I have a much better, hands-on understanding of how (government) functions . . . a sense of how things work . . . a much better sense of sizing people up and how you go about building an administration.”

We wanted to interview Brown to ask his views on seven key questions we posed to all the candidates in one of our first posts. In his own fashion, he addressed most of them. However, Brown staunchly refused to specify what combination of cuts and tax hikes he would support to deal with chronic deficits, beyond stressing his view that California is a “very high tax” state and dismissing as politically impractical the proposal to amend Proposition 13 by taxing commercial and industrial property at higher rates than residential property.

“Anyone who answers that (tax and cuts question) will never have a chance to be governor,” he said. “It’s very hard to discuss with particularity anything that can be turned into (campaign) fodder.”

Moreover, he added, “dictating from the corner office does not work . . . If eliminating the structural problems in the California budget were easy, Wilson, Davis and Schwarzenegger would have done it.”

How would he deal with fiercely ideological legislators on the left and the right?

“I’m going to become an apostle of common sense,” he said. “I will disabuse them of their ill-conceived predilections.”

“There’s an embedded partisanship that has to become disembedded,” he said. “In my bones, I’m not that partisan. I’m an independent thinker. That’s my tradition. I’ve been wary of ideology since I left the Sacred Heart Novitiate (in 1960).”

(Nostalgia footnote: Brown’s reference to “common sense” reminded us that when we covered his 1992 “Winter Soldier” campaign for president, he signed copies of Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” at a bookstore in Nashua, New Hampshire.)

[Only later did we discover that there had been a TV series about one of Brown's intellectual inspirations, hosted by Dale Ahlquist, President of the American Chesterton Society, titled " G.K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense."]

We asked Brown this key question: What do you want to do as governor?

He quickly ticked off four key concerns with specific ideas in each area: Renewable energy; prison reform; education reform; water policy (we’ll report details on these in future posts).

He acknowledged that pushing through innovative solutions on these issues would be difficult in the polarized atmosphere of Sacramento. He labeled as “a type of anarchy” the view of some GOP lawmakers that sending the state into bankruptcy is preferable to voting for a budget that includes tax increases.

“That kind of subversive attitude is unacceptable,” Brown said.

Asked about structural reforms, Brown said he doesn’t “think term limits have been helpful” because they create a revolving door mentality, with lawmakers constantly running for the next office.

“People being around 20 years is a problem. But people being around for just six years is a bigger problem,” he said. “They become more dependent on interest groups because they don’t have time to develop loyalty in their districts.”

While not a fan of the two-thirds majority vote needed to pass budgets, Brown said he doesn’t think there is a “mechanical” cure to structural financial problems.

Sounding most unlike an old-school Jerry Brown Democrat, he argued repeatedly that regulations making California less competitive than surrounding states must be challenged. “We have to make sure that regulation does not curtail business,” he said, echoing the Chamber of Commerce more than the Sierra Club.

On the issue of his age, about which Newsom and others (including Calbuzz) have needled him – Brown said the question was “meaningless.”

“Is their premise that my opponents think faster than me? Do they want to challenge me to a timed multiple-choice test?”

Informed that he’s older than the ballpoint pen, Brown laughed. “I remember the ballpoint pen,” he said, recalling that when the instrument came out, it was available to students only in blue ink (and it leaked).

The age attack “has no meaning . . . If Feinstein is so old, how come she’s 20 points ahead (in polls listing her as a candidate)?”

“It’s all about creativity . . . The fact that they’re attacking me is a plus, not a minus . . . I don’t know that it’s bad to be associated with Linda Ronstadt and the Beatles.”

As for those behind the line of attack on his septuagenarian status, Brown personally chided Newsom and his strategist Garry South:

“I don’t know whether he’s sniffing his hairspray or what,” the buzz-cut Brown said of South. “Between the hairspray and the gel (favored by Newsom) I think they’re getting a little intoxicated.”

Ho, ho, ho: Just because we can’t resist pictures of dogs in goofy costumes.

Jerry’s Challenge, Tony V’s Play, Arianna’s Aura

Monday, December 13th, 2010

Gov.-elect Jerry Brown’s Budget Teach-In last week in Sacramento was refreshing in its openness — with Brown and other presenters warning that the state’s budget shortfall is now estimated at about $28 billion between now and July 2012. No smoke. No mirrors. Just cold ugly facts.

But the gathering at Memorial Auditorium only took about 12 seconds to demonstrate anew that the fundamental conflict in Sacramento will not be solved by gathering everyone in a room together, sitting around the fireplace and singing kumbaya. Collegiality and civility certainly have been in short supply among the locusts fine men and women California voters have sent to the capital on their behalf.  But the principal contradiction is not a matter of congeniality — it remains political and ideological.

Most of the Democrats, and all of their leaders, believe the state’s budget shortfall is a revenue problem. They think taxes aren’t properly distributed and that solutions will be found by increasing revenues.

Most of the Republicans, and all of their leaders, believe the state’s budget shortfall is a spending problem. They think cutting unnecessary and overly generous state spending is the road to salvation.

KQED’s John Myers outlined the conflict nicely last week under the headline: “Jerry, Meet Gridlock; Gridlock, Jerry.”

Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger did no better — and some would argue a lot worse — than his Democratic predecessor, Gray Davis, at placing California on a firm financial footing. As he skips town, he leaves behind a huge mess that former-and-future Gov. Brown now must try to clean up.

Rumors abound that Jerry is planning to craft an austere budget which he will use as Exhibit A to obtain from voters some sort of temporary tax increase in June, or perhaps even a measure granting voters in cities, counties and school districts the authority to raise taxes with a majority vote or at least something less than two-thirds.

That would certainly return decision-making to local communities, “closer to the people” as he said in his campaign commercials. This of course could only succeed if Republicans and conservatives did not wage war against it. Which brings us back to the principal contradiction, which is a matter of ideology not civility.

To a cartoonist, like our Tom Meyer, it’s all a huge pile of garbage that’s been left behind by the previous administration and Legislature.  It’s hard to argue with that.


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What does Tony V want (don’t ask the LAT): Not since M.C. Escher has there been such a perfect image of bizarre and inescapable bureaucracy as the By God Los Angeles Times displayed over the past week in its  mishandling of an important political story involving hometown mayor Tony Villaraigosa.

Villaraigosa was in Sacramento on Tuesday to deliver the opening speech of the big conference on the state’s future sponsored by the Public Policy Institute of California, which drew about 600 political and policy types, including the likes of such national names as Judy Woodruff, Van Jones and Dan Balz of the Washpost.

Despite an early morning speaking slot that preceded the day’s first panel, focused on education, Tony V promptly made news: Villaraigosa, whose labor organizing and Sacramento political careers featured fierce advocacy for teacher unions, surprised his weed whacking audience by issuing a harsh denunciation of those very unions:

What is stopping us from changing direction?

Why, for so long, have we allowed denial and indifference to defeat action? I do not raise this question lightly, and I do not come to my conclusion from a lack of experience. I was a legislative advocate for the California Teachers Association, and I was a union organizer for United Teachers of Los Angeles. From the time I entered the California State Assembly and became Speaker, to my tenure as Mayor of Los Angeles, I have fought to fund and reform California’s public schools.

Over the past five years, while partnering with students, parents and non-profits, business groups, higher education, charter organizations, school district leadership, elected board members and teachers, there has been one, unwavering roadblock to reform: UTLA union leadership. While not the biggest problem facing our schools, they have consistently been the most powerful defenders of the status quo…Regrettably, they have yet to join us as we have forged ahead with a reform agenda.

Tony V’s deliberately provocative comments, coming from California’s most prominent Latino politician, not to mention a lifelong union goon, were a big deal, voiced at a time when teacher unions are increasingly embattled by national education reform efforts, starting in the White House.

And that’s how the matter was treated – by almost everyone except Hizzoner’s hometown paper.

Within minutes, David Sanchez, president of the California Teachers Association, had fired back at the mayor during a panel discussion that followed his speech. The relentless Jack Chang filed a post about the conflict on the Bee’s Capitol Alert blog not long after, as did the invaluable John Fensterwald on his state education blog .

By the next morning the reform-minded Joe Mathews had characterized Villaraigosa’s remarks as “the most significant speech given by a California politician this year,” and a variety of broadcast and wire reports, along with several newspaper editorials strongly supporting the mayor’s sentiments, were circulating.

And amid all the urgent buzz over the next two days, the L.A. Times produced . . . radio silence.

Not a word from any beat, anywhere on its far-flung editorial depth chart, which is rivaled only by the forces that gathered for the invasion of Normandy for organizational complexity and resources.

Our motto: if it’s news, it’s news to us.

Finally, on Friday morning, Times editors managed to clue their readers into what their mayor had been up to that week. A double byline story by Patrick McDonnell, who writes about labor, and City Hall reporter David Zahniser,  which also included reporting by Teresa Watanabe and Jason Song of the education desk, finally caught up with the news – a full 72 hours after Villaraigosa spoke.

“I knew it would cause a firestorm,” Villaraigosa said in an interview Thursday, two days after the speech.

This just in: Big firestorm slowly heading toward L.A.

In the end, it was left to Cathy Decker,  the paper’s ever reliable state politics editor, to clean up the elephantine mess with a Sunday thumbsucker that addressed the key question puzzling Calbuzz readers: WTF is Tony V up to?

“For a Democratic politician who is presumed to have ambitions once he is termed out of office in 2013, Villaraigosa’s moves were intriguing,” Decker wrote.

To those more Machiavellian in nature — say, the entire political establishment — other possibilities came to mind: Villaraigosa was angling for an Obama administration job. He was declaring independence from party positions and powers in preparation for a future statewide run. Or he was trying to redefine his mayoralty in a way that could reap benefits down the line, were he to decide to exercise options one or two….

Part of the difficulty in divining what Villaraigosa was trying to accomplish last week is the parallel difficulty in figuring out where he might be going.

Decker seemed to hit upon the nut of the matter when she noted that, regardless of Tony V’s secret aspirations, he needs to bump up his profile, now, to avoid being generationally squeezed out, between California’s Democratic Geezer Trio and its cool new Dynamic Duo:

When he first ran for mayor in 2001, Villaraigosa was seen as one of the Democratic Party’s up-and-comers. Now the senior Democrats — Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer and Gov.-elect Jerry Brown — are in their 70s. Villaraigosa will be pushing 60 when the next big race occurs — Feinstein’s Senate seat is up in 2012, though she has said she plans to run again. Catching up with the mayor is a younger group of Democrats, personified by the incoming lieutenant governor and attorney general, Gavin Newsom and Kamala Harris. Both are in their 40s.

For upward momentum, or just a legacy, Villaraigosa has to make good on his basic pledges: to lower crime, improve schools and increase jobs. Crime has been down, but joblessness is high. Voters can cut mayors slack during national downturns, but no such slack is likely when it comes to the state of the schools. Villaraigosa himself said years ago that voters should “absolutely” hold him responsible for reforming schools, and unless he can convince voters that the unions are to blame, they are likely to hold him to it.

Today’s sign the end of civilization is near: Remind us again why she gets to be on “Meet the Press”?

Press Clips: Another Huge Award for Calbuzz

Friday, December 10th, 2010

Now that the Pulitzer Prize committee has finally decided to join the 21st century by opening their competition to all conceivable forms of digital reporting, it’s only a matter of time before Calbuzz captures the Big Enchilada for our Special Brand of Journalism.

In the meantime, we’ve copped yet another top honor from our peers to put on the mantle right next to our already impressive collection:  we learned this week that we’ve won the silver medal in the prestigious “Crunks” competition, which ranks the best of the best in the “Year in Media Errors and Corrections.”

The list is compiled by Columbia Journalism Review columnist Craig Silverman, the world’s leading authority on news industry screw-ups, who honored us for our May 11 item setting the record straight on a conversation with California Democratic Party chairman John Burton a few days before:

In our Saturday post about the California Democratic Party’s ad attacking Meg Whitman but masquerading as an “issues ad,” we described the abrupt ending to our conversation with CDP Chairman John Burton. Through his spokesman, Burton on Monday complained that he had been misquoted. Burton says he didn’t say “Fuck you.” His actual words were, “Go fuck yourself.” Calbuzz regrets the error.

Silverman had earlier written a piece examining the weighty journalistic issues at stake in our extremely responsible effort, if we do say so ourselves, to ensure the record of history is clear about Burton’s statement; although we were disappointed not to win first place, we had to admit that the top finishing Ottawa Citizen did some outstanding work with its entry:

The Ottawa Citizen and Southam News wish to apologize for our apology to Mark Steyn, published Oct. 22. In correcting the incorrect statements about Mr. Steyn published Oct. 15, we incorrectly published the incorrect correction. We accept and regret that our initial regrets were unacceptable and we apologize to Mr. Steyn for any distress caused by our previous apology.

“On behalf of the thousands of employees in the Calbuzz global family who work indefatigably every day to live up to our corporate motto – ‘Shooting the Wounded Since March 2009,’” our executive committee said in a press statement, “we accept this award with gratitude and, of course, deep humility.”

Perspective perspectives: Amid the madness of non-stop bloviation and serious heavy breathing generated by the knuckleheads who drive the 24/7 news cycle, it’s nice to know that there are some level-headed political reporters who still value the importance of context and perspective.

Case in point: the excellent assemblage of data by Talking Points Memo illustrating that, despite the opinions-every-second proclivities of Beltway geniuses, President Obama’s standing among voters is not much different at this point in his administration than that of all other presidents since JFK.

Ditto the New York Times, which took a step back from the firestorm of what-it-all-means political speculation about Obama’s tax deal with Republicans to examine its likely impact on the economy, concluding that it’s worth about 3 million new jobs.

And a tip o’ the hat also to Slate, for digging out the numbers that show that it is the red states, whose representatives are constantly whining about excessive spending, that benefit the most from federal largesse, at the expense of taxpayers in places like, oh say, California. Also to Dan Walters for reminding us that, despite the intractable economic and political problems wrapped up in the state’s chronic deficits, it’s a piddling amount viewed in the context of the size and scope of the California economy.

Presidential follies: New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg this week reignited speculation about running for president as an independent by giving a high-profile speech decrying partisanship and proclaiming the need for pragmatic centrist politicians. Then he promptly tried to tamp it down by telling Katie Couric he isn’t planning to run.

But the Washpost’s estimable Dan Balz isn’t so sure, and has a nice scooplet reporting exactly what data points Team Bloomberg privately considers to be crucial in its calculations.

As we’ve noted previously, a serious Bloomberg candidacy raises the nightmare specter of a Sarah Palin presidency. Assuming she wins the GOP nomination, the electoral college could splinter in a three-way race, leaving the selection of the nation’s chief executive in the hands of the right-wing Republican House of Representatives. Shudder.

Wiki Laughs: While everyone else in the world seems to have a firm opinion about the out-on-the-edge ethical and journalistic issues raised by the Wikileaks dump of State Department documents, Calbuzz is still mulling the meaning and morals of the incident, although we’re totally with Naomi Wolf on the absurdity of at least one part of  l’affaire Assange.

Today’s sign the end of civilization is near: There’s actually a person who’s even more repulsive than Sarah Palin.

Obama’s Tax Deal: A High Risk, High Reward Play

Wednesday, December 8th, 2010

At a tipping point in his presidency, Barack Obama has embraced a Republican-slanted deal on taxes that has enraged his Democratic allies and emboldened his GOP enemies, a high-risk bet aimed at buying time on the economy while portraying himself as the only grown-up in Washington.

At a time when his recent weak and ineffectual performance increasingly draws comparisons to Jimmy Carter, Obama abandoned a fundamental campaign promise, and a basic premise of Democratic politics, by bowing to GOP demands to extend George Bush’s low tax rates for the richest Americans.

His agreement to continue those rates, for at least two years, is at the core of a compromise he negotiated with Republicans that he argues will help create jobs. The plan also calls for continuing current income tax rates for all other taxpayers and an extension of unemployment insurance benefits,  among other features. .

His play infuriated liberal Democrats in Congress, and, in a surprise move aimed at regaining control of the debate, Obama took to the White House press room Tuesday for a hastily convened news conference. In it, he not only strongly defended his deal as a pragmatic compromise that will help middle class Americans struggling in the sagging economy but also defiantly bashed his own political base, which is attacking him for ducking a fight against intransigent Republicans and their determination to protect the fortunes of the wealthiest one percent of people in the nation.

Comparing liberal unhappiness with his tax measure to the left’s loud complaints about his health care compromise, Obama said:

People will have the satisfaction of having a purist position and no victories for the American people. And we will be able to feel good about ourselves and sanctimonious about how pure our intentions are and how tough we are, and in the meantime the American people are still seeing themselves not able to get health insurance because of a pre-existing condition, or not being able to pay their bills because their unemployment insurance ran out. That can’t be the measure of — of how we think about our public service. That can’t be the measure of what it means to be a Democrat.

Obama’s move, in the wake of huge Democratic congressional losses last month, is the most daring – and dangerous – piece of presidential triangulation since Bill Clinton and his toe-sucking erstwhile consultant Dick Morris forged a deal on welfare reform with Republicans after Democrats suffered a similar pasting in the 1994 mid-terms.

With national unemployment stubbornly stuck around 10 percent, and his own image sagging in polls, Obama’s gambit carries both considerable opportunities and huge risks for his presidency and, oh yeah, for the future of the economy. Here are some of the key political cross-currents:

Policy: Economically, the cost to the government of the proposed measure is staggering — about $900 billion over the next two years,  including about $120 billion for the high end tax reductions,  plus hundreds of billions more for extending lower rates for all other tax payers, along with expanded maximum unemployment benefits, a reduction in the employee contribution to the payroll tax and other changes.

But with the fragile economic recovery still sputtering, despite increases in corporate profits and other statistical signs of economic growth, Obama has agreed to what amounts to a second stimulus bill in hopes of spurring growth and creating jobs by the time of his re-election campaign in 2012.

Even if the measure succeeds in this way, however, the bottom line is that none of the elements of the compromise are paid for with either higher taxes or spending cuts. This means that the $900 billion will balloon the deficit even more, at a time when the Tea Party and other right-wing factions are clamoring for debt reduction as the highest priority for the government.

Annie Lowery over at Slate has an excellent take on these issues.

Politics: One political goal of Obama’s triangulation play is to win back the support of independent voters, who strongly supported him in 2008 but overwhelmingly fled to the Republicans in last month’s elections.

By challenging fellow Democrats over the bill, Obama signals independents that he puts results above party, even as he harshly criticizes Republicans for placing their own ideology over the economic welfare of Americans. Speaking of the GOP’s stance on the tax issue, he said:

I think it’s tempting not to negotiate with hostage takers, unless the hostage gets harmed, then people will question the wisdom of that strategy. In this case the hostage was the American people and I was not willing to see them get harmed.

Positioning: By giving short shrift to what he portrays as the partisan concerns of both parties, Obama hopes to send the message that his political values are at their core those of a pragmatist, a post-partisan technocrat whose only interest is in making government work and giving people their money’s worth for their taxes.

“This isn’t an abstract debate,” Obama said several times during his news conference:

I’m not here to play games with the American people or the health of our economy. My job is to do whatever I can to get this economy moving. My job is to do whatever I can to spur job creation. My job is to look out for middle-class families who are struggling right now to get by, and Americans who are out of work through no fault of their own.

By kicking the can down the road for two years on the debate about taxes for the wealthy, Obama could gain some additional advantage. Because the extension is only for two years, the issue will resurface at the height of the 2012 campaign, and the president is gambling that both the economy and his own political standing will have improved by then.

On Tuesday, he repeatedly pointed to the Senate’s failure last weekend to pass legislation, which he favors, that would have continued lower tax rates for 98 percent of Americans, but raised them for those with annual incomes above $250,000 in one defeated bill and $1 million in another. But at the same time, he insisted that most Americans agree with his position:

This is not a situation in which I have failed to persuade the American people of the rightness of our position. I know the polls — the polls are on our side on this.

It is this argument that so infuriates many Democrats. With public opinion strongly in favor of raising taxes on the rich, liberals would love to pick a fight with Republicans on the issue, daring them to block the extension of lower rates for 98 percent of Americans on behalf of protecting the top few percent.

They argue that one of a president’s most crucial jobs is to rally the public on behalf of his program, particularly when a majority of voters agree with him, and many Democrats view Obama’s unwillingness to do exactly that as shameful political cowardice.

“I am not arguing from a position of political weakness,” Obama insisted.

Well, actually…

The biggest problem for Obama may be that, political calculations aside, he has basically ceded the merits of the argument over taxes to the Republicans. After winning the presidency by campaigning against conservative, supply-side economic orthodoxy, he now enthusiastically is pushing a proposal that is based on precisely those policies.

If the tax package works, unemployment declines and the economy starts to surge, Republicans can rightfully argue that they were right all along on taxes; if it doesn’t work, Obama will be stuck with both a bad economy and a lot of very angry Democrats.

P.S. As a political matter, the most memorable scenes from Obama’s news conference came when he was denouncing fellow Democrats. It was clear from his words and his tone that he is still carrying a major grudge over liberal denunciations for not getting a public option included in the final health care bill:

You know, so this notion that somehow, you know, we are willing to compromise too much, reminds me of the debate that we had during health care. This is the public option debate all over again.

We finally get health care for all Americans, something that Democrats have been fighting for a hundred years, but because there was a provision in there that they didn’t get, that would have affected maybe a couple of million people, even though we got health insurance for 30 million people…that somehow that was a sign of weakness and compromise. If that’s the standard by which we are measuring success or core principles, then let’s face it: We will never get anything done.

Further reading: Check out Jill Lawrence’s strong piece at Politics Daily, where she argues that the president did a pretty good job with a lousy hand.