December 30, 2012

The president never quite sounds like a man who wants a deal. He instead invariably sounds like a pol seeking advantage over opponents, which is peculiar given that he faces no future election but will face a GOP House majority for at least two more years. He wants the other side to lose more than he wants a substantial deal to improve our fiscal situation.


Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is still trying to make a deal. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

The Post reports that Senate discussions on a fiscal cliff-avoiding deal have experienced a “major setback.” Presumably, Democrats won’t include any serious spending cuts to accompany revenue hikes. This predictable result suggests the Democrats are following President Obama’s less than constructive example.

On “Meet the Press,” rather than sound a conciliatory note, Obama bashed his opponents, accusing them — pot, meet kettle — of being unserious. He told David Gregory, “They have had trouble saying yes to a number of repeated offers. Yesterday, I had another meeting with the leadership, and I suggested to them if they can’t do a comprehensive package … of smart deficit reductions, let’s at minimum make sure that people’s taxes don’t go up and that 2 million people don’t lose their unemployment insurance.” He falsely suggested that the problem is the GOP’s unwillingness to yield on revenue: “I think it’s been very hard for Speaker Boehner and Republican Leader McConnell to accept the fact that taxes on the wealthiest Americans should go up a little bit — as part of an overall deficit reduction package.”

In fact what is going on here is a repetition of the president’s 2011 performance in which he refused to take on his own party. He has been offered deals with a significant revenue component, but he is the one refusing to move in any meaningful way on spending reduction. He has used the cover of GOP intransigence on taxes for so long he hasn’t noticed, or won’t admit, that it is now the prospect of additional revenue with no meaningful debt reduction from entitlement reform that has the GOP vexed. House Speaker John  Boehner (R-Ohio) let the president have it on this score in response to the president’s woe-is-me TV appearance:  

In an effort to get the president to agree to cut spending — which is the problem — I put revenues on the table last year, and I put them on the table again last month.  Republicans made every effort to reach the ‘balanced’ deficit agreement that the president promised the American people, while the president has continued to insist on a package skewed dramatically in favor of higher taxes that would destroy jobs. We’ve been reasonable and responsible. The president is the one who has never been able to get to ‘yes.’ 

This suggests that the president seems to think he can get by (and in the short term he is right) by avoiding any serious entitlement reform, while seeking as much revenue as he can via tax hikes on the “rich.” (It will come as a bitter pill to Senate Democrats in deep blue, expensive states if that definition extends to those making $250,000).

Critics of the House Republican leadership say they are getting nothing for relenting on expiration of a portion of the George W. Bush tax cuts. But the tax cuts are expiring on all Americans. House Republicans aren’t giving in “on what was an article of faith — that taxes should not be raised on anybody, poor or rich — in return for essentially nothing.” They don’t have the votes to achieve anything better right now. (A no vote on whatever the Senate comes up with still gets them no spending cuts, plus tax hikes on all taxpayers.) They lost the election, and with that nearly all power to force the president to do what he is loath to do, namely control spending.

Meanwhile the sequestration cuts seem destined to go forward, despite the president’s campaign talk that he’d take care of those “devastating” defense cuts. We will then have perhaps the worst of all worlds: A tax hike, no entitlement reform and “devastating” defense cuts. That, make no mistake, is the president’s preference.

Whether the Senate is able to reach a deal or not, the GOP should consider carefully its debt ceiling strategy. Then the choice will be simple: Let the president keep spending or insist on significant entitlement reform under threat of government bankruptcy. If liberals think the latter amounts to holding the country hostage, they are right, but it is the only mechanism that seems to get the president to get serious on entitlement reform.

Now he is a man in search of a scapegoat and a tactical advantage. You wonder when a president in search of a historic legacy (with the political guts to make it happen) is going to show up. Based on his recent behavior, the answer might well be: Never.