The political inevitability of the Cantor pullout
On Thursday morning, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) announced that he was removing himself from the ongoing debt reduction talks with Vice President Joe Biden, citing the unwillingness of Democrats to take tax increases off the table as his primary motivation.
“Each side came into these talks with certain orders, and as it stands the Democrats continue to insist that any deal must include tax increases,” Cantor said in a statement. “Regardless of the progress that has been made, the tax issue must be resolved before discussions can continue.”
Cantor was immediately backed up by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Whip Jon Kyl. “President Obama needs to decide between his goal of higher taxes or a bipartisan plan to address our deficit,’ the duo said in a joint statement. “He can’t have both.”
The decision by Cantor was greeted with shock — or at least surprise — by the political world. But, it shouldn’t have been.
Why? Because of a hard but simple political truth: there is absolutely NO constituency within the Republican party that is even modestly open to tax increases as the only way to solve the budget deficit.
The latest Washington Post/ABC poll proves it out.
Fifty two percent of Republicans in the survey said that “cutting federal spending” is the best way to reduce the federal budget deficit while just one percent chose the “increasing taxes” option and 46 percent said a “combination of both” would be the best way to go.
Those numbers stand in stark contrast to how Democrats and independents view the best course for solving the debt problem. Two thirds of Democrats and nearly six in ten (59 percent) of independents said that the best way to shrink the debt was a combination of spending cuts and tax increases.
The Republican aversion to tax increases — of any sort — as a sole solution to the debt problem shines through in another data point from the poll.
Asked if debt reduction had to come from a combination of cuts and tax increases, 71 percent of self-identified Republicans said it should come more from spending cuts while just three percent said increasing taxes and 25 percent chose half coming from each source.
The fact is that it would amount to political death for Cantor to be seen as a major player in a deal that increases taxes of any sort without the gaining heavy concessions on the spending side. (Not to mention the difficulty of selling a debt reduction plan that increases taxes to the large GOP freshmen House class that was elected in large part on a pledge to drastically curb spending in the nation’s capitol.)
(For another perspective on why Cantor did what he did, check out Ezra Klein’s take.)
The specter of former President George H.W. Bush looms large in this debate. His pledge at the 1988 Republican National Convention — “read my lips...no new taxes” — came back to haunt him after he cut a budget deal in 1990 that included tax increases. Many Republicans credit that oath-breaking, which turned many conservatives against Bush, as the reason for his defeat at the hands of Bill Clinton in 1992.
While Republican elected officials and their parties’ strategists are aware that pulling away from the negotiations runs the risk of making them look more interested in scoring political points than solving problems — a major point of interest for independents — they are equally aware that without their base firmly behind them in 2012 they have no chance of retaking the presidency.
This is a gambit designed to tilt the deal in favor of spending cuts and away from tax increases. That way, if Cantor — and Republicans more broadly — do have to cut a deal on taxes, they can argue that they did everything in their power to sway the debate toward where their base wanted it.