The Morning Plum: Dems hold the middle ground. GOP is on fringe.

December 13, 2012

Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images

I spoke this morning to an official familiar with the fiscal cliff talks. He tells me that ever since Republicans rejected the first White House fiscal offer, White House negotiators have been asking Republicans to detail both the spending cuts they want and the loopholes and deductions they would close to raise revenues while avoiding a hike in tax rates for the rich.

According to the official, Republicans continue to refuse to answer.

“No answer ever since the Geithner meeting,” the official said. “To date they have been unwilling or able to identify a list of specific cuts or changes they would like or a single loophole they are willing to close.”

This is borne out by reporting in both the New York Times and Politico. How on earth can there be any progress under these circumstances?

There is a great deal of consternation this morning over the failure to reach a deal and what it says about the failings of our “political system.” But the main problem is not the “system,” it’s the behavior of one of the participants. It is overwhelmingly clear at this point that Republicans are the primary obstacle to any compromise. Admittedly, this is not a surprising assertion, coming from this blog. But let’s put it this way. There are three basic points about the current situation that make that conclusion inescapable. And I would ask anyone tempted to blame both sides equally whether they are wrong:

1) The GOP stance — that tax rates must not go up on the wealthy under any circumstances, ever — is essentially a fringe position at this point, one far outside the American mainstream.

2) The Democratic position — that our fiscal problems should be fixed through a mix of spending cuts and a hike in rates on the wealthy — is far closer to the middle ground than the GOP stance is, and Dems just decisively won an election focused heavily on the central sticking point holding up a fiscal compromise.

3) Republicans are demanding ever deeper spending cuts, but they won’t detail with any meaningful specificity what those cuts should be, and they insist they can solve our revenue problem via eliminating loopholes and deductions, but they won’t detail with any meaningful specificity what those should be, either. By contrast, Dems have detailed their demands — they have detailed the tax hikes they want.

I’ll work my way through all three below.

* Dems hold middle ground while GOP clings to fringe position: This is revealed in a fresh way by the new NBC/WSJ poll. It specifically asks people if they support raising tax rates, as opposed to just raising taxes. And 65 percent agree with this:

Leaders in Congress should make compromises to gain consensus on the budget deficit, even if it means Democrats would have to accept targeted spending cuts in Social Security and Medicare and Republicans would have to accept targeted increases in tax rates.

This is close to the Dem position (with the exception of the targeted cuts in Social Security). Dems think the final deal should include both an increase in rates and Medicare cuts — and 65 percent agree. It’s still more evidence Dems are closer to the middle ground here.

* Even Republicans want compromise that includes rate hike: The NBC team tells me that the new poll also finds that 66 percent of Republicans agree with the above statement. The unyielding opposition to raising rates on the wealthy is a fringe position. Get it?

* Still another poll shows support for Dem position: A new Bloomberg poll confirms it too:

A majority of Americans say President Barack Obama is right to demand that tax-rate increases for the highest earners be a precondition for a budget deal that cuts U.S. entitlement programs, a Bloomberg National Poll shows. Just over half say Obama and Democrats are more on their side in the debate over taxes and government spending than House Speaker John Boehner and Republicans.

The location of the middle ground is clear.

* Boehner still won’t specify what loopholes he’d close: Politico reports that Boehner has privately told Obama that he’s willing to consider more than $800 billion in new revenues — his previous ceiling — in exchange for deep entitlements cuts, but still no hike in rates.

This is not real movement. Boehner won’t specify which loopholes he’d close to get that $800 billion to begin with, and one expert previously told me that his plan can’t be evaluated because it’s too lacking in detail; that revenue target, let alone a higher one, may be mathematically impossible in this fashion.

* Still another Republican says it’s time to give ground: Also in the above link, John Cornyn says it’s time to face the inevitable:

“I believe we’re going to pass the $250,000 and below sooner or later, and we really don’t have much leverage there because those rates go up by operation of law Dec. 3…I would focus on the areas where we do have more leverage.”

Boehner is probably waiting for more Republicans to come out and say this so he can ultimately say he was forced to concede while telling conservatives he fought as hard as possible until the end.

* Tea Party GOPer says Republicans have no leverage: Senator Ron Johnson adds to the growing chorus:

“We have to understand and bow to reality at some point in time. Republicans have no power in this negotiation,” Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, told CNN. Johnson said he would not use his filibuster power to block a vote on a compromise that raises taxes.

That’s quite significant, coming from a favorite of the Tea Party.
 
* Conservatives need to bow to reality in fiscal talks: Right-leaning writer Philip Klein has a very good piece puncturing the arguments from some on the right that the GOP can win by refusing to surrender. The GOP low-tax “brand” will be rather compromised if we go over the cliff and Dems come back and demand middle class tax cuts — forcing Republicans to oppose lower taxes for 98 percent to protect the top two percent.

* The latest on filibuster reform: Here’s Senator Jeff Merkley’s long-awaited explanation of how the “talking filibuster” would work. Some critics doubt that forcing the minority to speak and hold the floor will dissuade filibustering, because Republicans will likely be rewarded by right wing media for any such displays. More on this later.

 * And “right to work” victory in Michigan was carefully orchestrated: Reuters has a very well reported peek inside the plot by Michigan Republicans to win “right to work” legislation. Note the careful preparations in the full knowledge that they were likely to face an epic, Wisconsin-style battle, and also the cast of characters, including the Koch brothers and even involvement by the late Andrew Breitbart.

What else?

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.
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Jonathan Bernstein | December 12, 2012