Michael Tomasky: On the Fiscal Cliff, Obama Does What He Can Against 200 Years of Bad Faith

Roundup: Media's Take

Newsweek/Daily Beast special correspondent Michael Tomasky is also editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.

While most liberals were stewing at Barack Obama yesterday for his "capitulation" on tax rates, I confess that I was feeling philosophical about it, and even mildly defensive of him. He is negotiating with madmen, and you can’t negotiate with madmen, because they’re, well, mad. I also spent part of yesterday morning re-reading a little history and reminding myself that rascality like this fiscal-cliff business has been going on since the beginning of the republic. So now I’d like to remind you. It’s always the reactionaries holding up the progressives—and usually, needless to say, it’s been the South holding up the North—and always with the same demagogic and dishonest arguments about a tyrannical central government. We’ll never be rid of these paranoid bloviators, and if no other president could stop them I don’t really see why Obama ought to be able to.

This history of legislative hostage-taking begins with the odious three-fifths compromise, which counted slaves as three-fifths of a person for census purposes. That much I trust you know. What you may not know is that the Southern states, backers of the three-fifths rule in this case in order to get greater representation in the House of Representatives, had opposed a different three-fifths rule earlier, back in the Articles of Confederation days. Then, three-fifths of all slaves were going to be counted for purposes of deciding how much federal tax each state owed.

In other words, the South had said, count slaves as part human for the purposes of taxation? Nevah! Count them as part-human for the purposes of representation, however—well, Yankee, now you’re talking. The South is still doing exactly the same thing today, never paying its freight, its cornpone pols inveighing against the evil government while the Southern states are collectively the most dependent on Washington largesse of all states and regions. The hypocrisy has a long pedigree...

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