Republicans need to make up their minds: Is President Obama a socialist or a corporate stooge?
"The president claims his economic agenda is for the middle class. But it's actually for the well-connected," Paul Ryan, the GOP's 2012 vice presidential nominee, wrote last week in USA Today, rejecting Obama's latest proposal for a corporate tax cut. "There's no doubt that it works well for them. But for the rest of us, it's not working at all."
Ryan, in his brief commentary, protested that Obama is "interested in tax reform for corporations -- but not for families or small business." He further accused Obama of implementing health care and regulatory policies that favor big businesses and big banks.
Ryan, after all, is the guy who just a year ago accused Obama of "sowing social unrest and class resentment," of supporting "a government-run economy" and of "denigrating people who are successful." He has charged the president with leading the nation toward "a cradle-to-grave, European-style social welfare state."
Republican lawmakers seem to think that Americans have short memories and lack Internet connections, for their latest line of attack -- that Obama's health care and tax policies favor the corporate elite -- directly contradicts their previous allegation that Obama was waging "class warfare" with "socialist" policies attacking these very same corporate elites.
"Why is it," Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, asked at a Ways and Means Committee hearing last month, "that under this White House, Warren Buffett gets a break from Obamacare, but Joe Six-Pack, the single mom working at the local restaurant, they don't get any kind of break?"
The theme was picked up Wednesday by House Speaker John Boehner, who, rather than crediting Obama for offering to cut the corporate tax rate, complained that Obama's "scheme" would "actually require small businesses to pay higher tax rates than big companies."
So Obama's that rare socialist who is in bed with big business? Then again, the point of the Republicans' critique of Obama isn't to be logical; it's to be critical -- relentlessly, if not rationally.
Boehner, asked at a news conference about Obama's series of speeches on the economy, replied: "If I had poll numbers as low as his, I'd probably be out doing the same thing if I were him." Obama's job-approval rating is 46 percent. Boehner's is just over half that.
The indecision over whether Obama is a socialist or a plutocrat is but one of the contradictory critiques his opponents have yet to resolve. They also haven't determined whether he's a tyrant or a weakling, arrogant or apologetic. It all suggests the opposition is based less on principle than on reflex.
"We have a president that's a socialist," Texas Gov. Rick Perry said at one of the 2012 Republican presidential debates, disregarding both nuance and grammar.
But now, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah is one of several Republicans complaining that Obama is unfairly boosting corporations by extending the deadline for them to comply with Obamacare. "We have big business being thrown a big bone," he said on the Senate floor last week. "This is not fair."
Likewise, Boehner says, "the president is not leading," a charge echoed by other prominent Republicans. Mitt Romney called Obama a "weak president," and Newt Gingrich, during the 2012 campaign, called Obama "so weak that he makes Jimmy Carter look strong."
That should come as a relief to Republicans, who spent much of 2010 calling Obama a tyrant. Many of them still do. Darrell Issa of California, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, says Obama is guilty of "imperial behavior" and "abuse of power." Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky asserts that Obama is "someone who wants to act like a king or a monarch." And Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas still prefers to think of Obama as "a tyrannical despot."
If you're going to be a despot, you might as well be a tyrannical one.
The Republican lawmakers may be so muddled because their thought leaders can't agree on the proper line of attack. The confusion grew so intense during Obama's intervention in Libya that some Republicans contradicted their own critiques in the span of days. Gingrich, for example, demanded in early March 2011 that the United States should "exercise a no-fly zone this evening." Two weeks later, after Obama took the action that would bring down Moammar Gadhafi, Gingrich said, "I would not have intervened."
It was a brave stand against the cruel tyranny of consistency.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.
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