Do Democrats actually want to go over the fiscal cliff?

December 3, 2012

Over the last 96 hours, it's become abundantly clear that any post-election momentum that was building for a deal to avert the fiscal cliff has abated and we are, in the words of House Speaker John Boehner, at a "stalemate".

The more intriguing -- and harder to answer -- question is whether deadlock is right where Democrats want things to be and whether the President's party has any real interest in finding common ground before Dec. 31.


Do Democrats want to jump off the fiscal cliff?/ Photo by REUTERS.

Republicans have whispered for weeks now that they believe Democrats and the White House want to go over the fiscal cliff and that the President's initial offer late last week -- $1.6 trillion in revenue increases, $400 billion in entitlement cuts, $50 billion in stimulus spending and the ceding of the power to raise the debt limit to the executive branch -- is blunt evidence that the White House is interested in making it appear as though they are willing to deal without actually being willing to deal.

The White House, of course, has insisted for weeks that they are the only side who has put something on the table in terms of a specific plan and that, as such, the ball is in Republicans' court. The Republicans finally responded Monday afternoon with a $4.6 trillion plan of their own. 

And even the Democratic strategist set insists that their side isn't interested in taking the leap -- although they quickly note that if that was to happen, the party would be in position to benefit politically.

"I don't believe the Dems want to go over the fiscal cliff -- don't believe it at all," said Democratic strategist Paul Begala. "But they are prepared for it, and are in a better position than the Republicans should it occur." (Begala jokingly compared the cliff to the Y2K scare; "I didn't want it  to happen, but if it did, I was better prepared than my neighbors: I had freeze-dried food, gold bricks, a cooler full of beer and cases full of shotgun shells," he said.

Begala's belief of Democrats' political advantage on the cliff is rooted in public opinion data that suggests that congressional Republicans would bear the brunt of the blame if Congress failed to reach a deal by the end of the year.

In a poll conducted by the Washington Post and Pew just after the election a majority (53 percent) said that Republicans in Congress would be to blame if the fiscal cliff was breached while just 29 percent said President Obama would bear the blunt of the blame. A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll conducted in the middle of last month showed similar data; 45 percent said congressional Republicans would be to blame for a fiscal cliff failure while 34 percent would blame President Obama.

Chris Lehane, a Democratic operative, compared the current fiscal cliff crisis to the 1995 government shutdown showdown between President Bill Clinton and Congressional Republicans.

"President Clinton seized the high ground through the shaping of public opinion, which ultimately put so much pressure on the Republicans that they went into the bunker, raised the white flag and sued for peace," explained Lehane. The key to Clinton's win in that fight, according to Lehane, was "all about taking and holding the high ground"; he added that "securing the high ground is determined by which side has public opinion with them or against them."

While the 1995 government shutdown was widely regarded as a political victory for Clinton -- and set the course for his easy reelection victory in 1996 -- Republicans insist that drawing that comparison is a dangerous game for Democrats.

"Drawing from the 1995 experience of the government shut-downers, today’s cliff divers need to worry that the political water is pretty shallow, and any political impact when the economy hits bottom could be pretty painful for everyone involved," said Eric Ueland, former chief of staff to the Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and now a GOP lobbyist.

Ueland's argument that going over the cliff could hurt everyone involved brings to mind the debt ceiling debacle, er, debate in the summer of 2011 that, in retrospect, wound up being a major negative moment for both parties

In other words, while it's clear from the polling data available today that Republicans would get the lion's share of the blame if the country went off the fiscal cliff, it's impossible to know whether that dynamic would change if we as a country actually did go off the cliff.

"If the fiscal cliff has the impact economists are projecting, I’m not sure that the White House will want to play Russian Roulette with the American economy," predicted Glen Bolger, a prominent Republican pollster.

We tend to agree. While polling today suggests that Democrats win if the country goes off the cliff, who knows what the next month might do to public opinion or, more importantly, how a massive drop in the stock market or predictions of recession might impact the political blame game. And, if there's one thing politicians -- in both parties -- hate more than anything, it's an uncertain outcome with (potentially) disastrous impact on them. 

At the moment, that's what going over the fiscal cliff promises -- or at least has the potential to deliver.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Chris Cillizza · December 3, 2012