December 28, 2012

Today, senators return to Washington as they begin a final effort to reach agreement on the “fiscal cliff” before time runs out. Leading Republican efforts this time is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who received the ball after House Speaker John Boehner failed to corral GOP votes for a conservative alternative to President Obama’s proposal.


(/Gary Cameron/Reuters)

Odds for a deal are slim at best; Republicans and Democrats are separated by an intractable divide on taxes, which itself is a proxy for the larger fight over the future of the welfare state — Republicans want to shrink it, Democrats want to maintain the status quo. More narrowly, lawmakers such as McConnell — who is up for reelection in 2014 and might face a conservative challenger — just aren’t in a position to make deals that raise taxes.

This, however, hasn’t stopped the usual calls for compromise. For example, as part of an effort to bring “both sides” together, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has directed stores in the Washington, D.C., area to scrawl “come together” on drinks served today. And McConnell, playing off said calls, has begun attacking the White House as the key stumbling block to a deal. Here’s Politico:

Speaking on the floor Thursday afternoon, McConnell said he was a “little frustrated because we’ve been asking the president and Democrats to work with us on a bipartisan agreement for months — months.”

McConnell added: “Republicans bent over backwards. We stepped way out of our comfort zone. We wanted an agreement. But we had no takers. The phone never rang. And so now, here we are, five days from the New Year, and we might finally start talking.”

What’s striking about McConnell’s rhetoric — and the calls for compromise writ large — is the extent to which they seem to operate in a vacuum. Neither McConnell, nor Boehner, nor Schultz (or similar-minded people at organizations such as Fix the Debt) have acknowledged one key fact about the current situation: That it comes just a month after a presidential election, where the incumbent won a solid victory after campaigning for a stronger safety net, tax increases on the rich and a “balanced” solution to deficit reduction.

“Both sides” don’t need to compromise. Rather, Republicans need to reconcile themselves to the fact that the public voted decisively against their policies, both in the presidential election and in congressional elections around the country, where Democrats won most open Senate seats and came away from House elections with a larger share of votes (which, due to redistricting and population movement, didn’t translate to a large gain in the chamber itself). The fiscal cliff shouldn’t be used to circumvent the clear preferences of the electorate.

This isn’t to say that Republicans have to give up their interests, but if compromise requires the White House to adopt GOP priorities, then it won’t happen — and more important — it shouldn’t. If Republicans want to strip down the social safety net and craft a low-tax, low-service environment, then the first step is to win elections.

Jamelle Bouie is a staff writer at The American Prospect, where he writes a blog.