Watching Obama, this Republican misses Clinton

OKLAHOMA CITY — Tom Cole is a conservative Republican, and a member of the U.S. House representing a red state. 

But hear this: Pondering the impasse between the White House and Congress, Cole actually misses Bill Clinton.

“Looking back, Bill Clinton had a skill set that included an understanding of negotiation, namely that a Republican speaker could not frequently go against his own members,” Cole said. “Clinton understood, and accepted, that on some things where he made a deal with Republicans he would not get his own base, but that he could be part of advancing some things with a minority of Democrats and a majority of Republicans in support.”

Cole was quick to add, “This is not meant as a criticism” of President Barack Obama, just “a description of how I see things operating right now.”

But it sure sounds like criticism, or maybe nostalgia for a time when D.C. powerbrokers knew how to get a deal.

“You’ll remember the budget deals and the welfare reform,” he said. “Lots of Democrats take credit for that now, but they forget how the votes broke down.”

So what’s the fundamental problem? Call it tenure: “The president is the president for four years. I like to joke that Speakers of the House, that they are speakers in 24-hour increments, and they are constantly aware of what their members think,” Cole said.

Cole is worried about the impact the March 1 automatic federal spending cuts (called “sequestration”) on his Fourth Congressional District. Indeed, the district is in the top 20 in federal employment, due to major military installations in Lawton, Altus and Midwest City, just east of Oklahoma City.

While Cole contends Congress will not allow the full force of a decade-long process of sequestration to slash military spending, he observed that over time the cuts could “diminish the U.S. global posture.”

Pointing to an analysis from the House Armed Services Committee, Cole said the loss of 100,000 soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen would result in the smallest U.S. ground forces since before World War II, a fleet of fewer than 230 ships (the lowest number since 1915), and the smallest tactical fighter force in U.S. Air Force history.

Cole describes the current fights over federal budgets and taxes as part of a “five-act drama” – one that is now in its second act. 

Broader, global events might interrupt that five-act drama of spending and tax fights, he said.

Cole pointed to three global hot spots that might temporarily end the fight over spending cuts:

* “I must say the president has been right to be so cautious in the Syria situation. He made the right choice to avoid entanglement with elements of the rebels there. Some of the rebels are very troublesome and that could explode at any time.

* “Then, there is Iran and its emerging nuclear capability. Military confrontation cannot be ruled out, and Israel could move on its own to keep Iran from getting nuclear weapons.

* “Finally, there are the North Koreans. They are so recalcitrant. They are advancing with nuclear testing in the face of the opposition of their best friends, the Chinese. The North Koreans have sold troubling materials to the Syrians regularly, and the Israelis have taken note.”

Bottom line, in Cole’s view, is that federal budget and spending issues – and American economic performance—will continue to dominate the policy debate in Washington, D.C., unless one or more of those foreign policy challenges transform the discussion.

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