Ben Franklin wisely called life “a kind of chess.”
For the past six weeks, Democrats and Republicans have been engaged in the biggest, riskiest, most costly game of political speed chess in the nation’s history.
A chess game starts with the “opening,” a series of moves that define the basic structure and direction the game is likely to take.
Sometimes chess players will begin with an unexpected opening to throw the opponent off. Then they execute a series of moves that takes the game back to a more familiar opening. That’s called transposition.
By presenting an unexpected opening before returning to the familiar, the player hopes his opponent’s moves will be less sharp.
This has clearly been Team Obama’s opening.
During the campaign, Barack Obama talked about creating a different kind of Washington, reducing partisanship, welcoming ideas “wherever they came from,” getting rid of earmarks, banning lobbyists from his administration and ensuring transparency.
During the transition, Obama made moves toward the political center with some moderate Cabinet appointments and statements.
Once in office, however, what looked like real change quickly transposed into the traditional Democratic liberal opening.
Obama handed over responsibility for writing the stimulus package to Hill Democrats, tolerated the exclusion of Republicans from the process, nominated lobbyists for key positions and looked the other way when his promised waiting period for signing legislation went by the boards — and that was just the first two weeks after the inauguration.
This was followed by his “new era of responsibility budget” that saddles the country with massive debt for generations and his decision to abdicate any responsibility for the omnibus budget bill and its 8,500 earmarks. Today, Obama’s transposition is virtually complete.
The Washington battle is back to the old traditional Republican versus Democrat debate, only with much bigger stakes and played at warp speed by Washington standards.
Democrats are once again pushing huge tax and spending increases as Republicans argue just the opposite.
Because they’ve been in this position before and lost, Democrats understand that to win in this center-right country, they must paint this as the direst economic crisis since the Great Depression by scaring people into overcoming their natural skepticism of policies of the far left.
To persuade centrist voters to embrace a leftist agenda, Democrats also have to successfully define the origins of the crisis to their benefit by blaming greedy bankers, the rich and Republicans for not regulating financial institutions.
Republicans counter that it was the Democrats’ social engineering policies at the root of the economic meltdown, pressuring banks to make risky loans and blocking reforms of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in 2003.
In George Orwell’s “1984,” one party slogan asserted, “He who controls the past, controls the future.” Apt words for Democratic attempts to revise history to push their current agenda.
Ironically, when Obama and Hill Democrats sat down at the table in January, they were in a position to define the game, another chess concept called “initiative.” Whoever moves first has it and game play determines whether it can be sustained or wrested away by the opponent.
But the president has frittered away his initiative. As the markets tank, 401(k)’s disappear and public confidence begins to erode, Obama seems to have forgotten that the country wants seriousness and steadiness from its leaders in times of crisis, not gimmicky summits and photo ops.
By using the crisis to push a left-wing laundry list, he has begun to lose focus on his most serious challenge — the economy.
A radical new cap-and-trade energy policy that will raise the cost of energy on every American, a controversial housing policy and a cut in home mortgage deductions that will cause home values to decline even further are just a few of his proposals for change that have become negative distractions.
And he apparently does have time to worry about Rush Limbaugh. As the Democratic attack on Limbaugh showed, Obama and company clearly don’t know what to do about Wall Street, so they retreated to the kind of partisan politics candidate Obama promised to reject.
Republicans have not yet wrested the initiative away from Obama and Hill Democrats, but they have made progress as seen in survey results.
Support for Obama’s policies now trail his personal support, but if he keeps playing the game for speed and tactical gains, history shows his numbers are likely to shift, possibly quickly. Already, several national surveys put his job approval at less than 60 percent.
Obama needs to rethink his position. He might listen to what film director Stanley Kubrick had to say about the game: “What chess teaches you is that you must sit there calmly and think about whether it’s really a good idea and whether there are other, better ideas.”