Republicans have a habit of seeming like actors who first want to know their "motivation" and then read it instead of their lines.
In 1991, President George H.W. Bush explained that he wanted "to be positioned in that I could not possibly support David Duke because of the racism and because of the very recent statements that are very troubling in terms of bigotry and all of this." Positioned?
When Bob Dole, another former Senate leader, ran for president in 1996, he assured voters, "If that's what you want, I'll be another Ronald Reagan." He even launched a national debate on whether he should "go negative" against Bill Clinton. According to his own strategists, his plan was to "act presidential." Not to "be presidential" -- just to act that way.
Politics is about show, not tell.
His remark about not calling his bluff notwithstanding, Obama has at least demonstrated the political professionalism to read his lines. His refusal to sign a short-term debt-ceiling extension is, according to him, an act of moral leadership, high-minded pragmatism and flat-out bravery.
"I've reached my limit. This may bring my presidency down, but I will not yield on this," Obama reportedly said about his determination to have a long-term deal. He says he wants the deal because America can't continue to kick the can down the road, even though that's what he did during his entire presidency until the GOP got in the way.
My suspicion is that if he read his stage direction instead of his lines, it would sound very different. Something like: "I want to be positioned as if I'm taking the high road, but I'm really just trying to kick this can past the 2012 election. I want to keep asking for things Republicans won't agree to so I can paint them as irresponsible. So, whatever you do, don't call my bluff."(Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can write to him in care of this newspaper or by e-mail at JonahsColumn@aol.com, or via Twitter @JonahNRO.)