There are several issues related to the fiscal cliff that have gotten knotted up. What Republicans “stand for” and what is possible are not the same. What they would get if the Bush tax cuts did not expire as a matter of law is different than what they would do if an affirmative vote to raise rates were required. Let’s see if we can untangle the ball of yarn.
Republicans think a tax hike (in rates or otherwise) would be bad for the economy. They have said it in the election. They have said it since then. Had they won the White House and Senate, tax rates and likely taxes in total would not be going up and instead we might be headed toward real tax reform.
Republicans don’t control the White House or Senate, and tax rates will go up for everyone unless an agreed-upon bill is passed. Democrats refuse to sign such a bill unless the rich get a tax hike, most likely a tax-rate hike. If we go over the cliff, Democrats will vote to reduce taxes next year for the vast majority of Americans. Then the GOP will be hard-pressed to say no.
Put differently, Republicans can’t get what they want. They don’t have the votes, and I suspect they don’t have the public. As Peter Wehner writes:
It may be that a majority of the public, having heard both sides of the argument, believes that upper-income people are under-taxed. If that’s the case, it would be a significant error for conservatives to assume we simply need to make the same arguments, only louder, with more passion, and with more charts and graphs. It may be that we have to reframe the issue. Or it may be that we have to accept that waging the fight on this ground is injurious to the larger conservative cause. This is a discussion conservatives need to have in a calm, empirical way, resisting the impulse (on all sides) to either purge or impugn motivations — and to bear in mind that if conservatives give in to Obama’s demands, it may be a mistake but it wouldn’t be a violation of a high principle. Deciding on whether the top tax rate should be 35 percent or 39.6 percent, or somewhere in between, is a prudential, not quasi-theological, argument.
A final, related point: Conservatives have to be alert to shifting circumstances. Today we face challenges – including wage stagnation, lack of social mobility, globalization, income inequality, fracturing families, and an entitlement crisis — that are in some respects quite different, or at least more acute, than the ones we faced in 1980, when the threats we faced included soaring interest rates, high inflation, and a top marginal rate of 70 percent. This doesn’t mean that the arguments about tax rates and the size of government are passé. But it does mean conservatism has to take into account a realistic assessment of the sentiments of the public – not in order to bow before them, but to be better able to shape them.
In other words, Republicans keep arguing the merits to dubious voters while Democrats have the veto and the Senate. The merits, I am afraid to say, don’t matter to President Obama. It is time to see what is possible and not what is optimal.
When you don’t like available alternatives it is tempting to say you want the unavailable alternative. But that is childish, and worse, ignores that there may be less and more disagreeable alternatives. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and the president are reportedly talking. Count me as skeptical that much of anything is being accomplished. In an effort not to cut his legs out from under him it would be nice if House and Senate Republicans would stop making one-sided public offers, as I wrote yesterday.
If Boehner can either get something (entitlement reform) in exchange for tax hikes or get a less onerous tax hike than the president wants, then it’s a win, maybe a miraculous one considering the position he is in.
The range of potential deals include letting rates on the rich rise (but not as much as the president wants) but also doing tax reform; agreeing to all or some of the Simpson-Bowles plan; and allowing rates to go up for the rich (maybe only for those at a higher threshold than $250,000) in exchange for avoidance of national security sequestration. Other than some combination of these or slight variations thereon, there is nothing that “fighting” will get Republicans. Again, they cannot get what they want, which entails gaining agreement from Obama and Senate Democrats to stop taxes from rising on the rich.
Boehner will need a lot of Democratic votes to pass a potential deal because many GOP grandstanders will refuse to follow him. That might make him unpopular with the all-or-nothing set, but the majority of his caucus is very likely to stick with him.
When you vote for something less horrible than available alternatives, you have not “caved.” You have governed. You have been an adult. That is what separation of powers, checks and balances and the essence of our Constitution are all about, namely messy alliances, imperfect choices, half a loaf, live to fight another day and avoid doing the most harm. If that is an anathema to some on the right, they have no business in government or selecting candidates who don’t grasp these essential principles. Simply because conservatives think Obama has the wrong idea about taxes or is behaving irresponsibly or is willing to wreck the economy to wage class warfare does not mean the R’s magically win. This is not a high school debate tournament Do you really imagine that, at this stage, the brilliance of the GOP’s arguments will simply win over Democrats?
Those who cannot figure out that policy arguments don’t always carry the day or that simply not giving in gets R’s what they want in this situation can, I guess, cash in at a think tank, advocacy group or on K Street, where one has no real responsibility or authority and can self-righteously lecture everyone else about one’s pristine motives. The rest of the R’s will muddle through as best as they can.