Why Tom Cole was right

January 2, 2013

At the end of November, Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole broke with party orthodoxy, insisting that his fellow Republicans should take a fiscal cliff deal that raised taxes on those making more than $250,000 immediately.


For that position he was pilloried by many within his own party who said that taking Cole's approach amounted to surrendering before the fight had even started. More than a month later -- and after two separate incidents in which House Republicans embarrassed themselves on a national stage -- it turns out that Cole was, in the main, right.

What Cole, a political pollster and consultant prior to being elected to the House, understood better than virtually anyone else in his party -- with the possible exception of Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) -- is that the GOP was playing an away game in the cliff negotiations.

That is, Democrats were able to argue that they simply wanted to raise taxes on the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans, forcing Republicans who opposed such a move into essentially defending the wealthiest among us. (To be clear: We are talking purely about political strategy and positioning here, not about the relative merits of the policy disagreements between the two sides.)

Cole said as much when explaining his position in late November. "I think we ought to take the 98 percent deal right now,” he told Politico. “It doesn’t mean I agree with raising the top 2. I don’t.”  

House Republicans chose not to heed Cole's advice. Instead, they did the following two things:

1. Attempted to pass a plan that would have raised taxes on those earning $1 million or more, a piece of legislation backed by both House Speaker John Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor that never came close to getting enough votes among their own conference to even bring it up for a vote.

2. Threatened to amend the Senate-passed fiscal cliff compromise -- a bill that got a hugely bipartisan 89-8 vote in the upper chamber -- with spending cuts before backing down and simply passing the deal unamended late Tuesday night.

The cumulative effect of those two moves was to leave political strategists -- even within their own party -- scratching their heads and average people feeling as though the House GOP didn't really want to make a deal that would keep taxes low. 

Yes, ultimately the fiscal cliff deal raised the dollar amount of those exempted from a tax increase to $400,000 -- thanks to McConnell -- which, on the numbers alone, was a better deal for Republicans.

But, if politics is all about picking not only your fights but the ground on which those fights take place -- and it is -- then signing off on a deal in early- to mid-December for $250,000 on a no-win issue for you is far better than dragging it out beyond a self-imposed deadline in full view of the public to wring another few hundred thousand dollars out of it.

It's the difference between tactics (a series of one-off maneuvers with no broad thematic plan) and strategy (that broad, thematic so-called long game). Cole (and McConnell) seem to have grasped that the long-range strategy dictated a deal be done on the fiscal cliff with as little public airing of grievances -- Festivus reference! -- as possible.

Unfortunately for Cole, his House Republicans colleagues didn't listen, and they are all now paying the price.

Fixbits:

For what it's worth, the Senate is not likely to come back.

Rep. Steve LaTourette (R-Ohio) with the quote of the year (so far): "We should not take a package put together by a bunch of octogenarians on New Year's Eve." LaTourette, notably, has been one of the Republicans pushing his party toward compromise.

Why Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) was one of just eight senators to vote against the deal.

Three-fourths of Americans say Washington is causing serious harm to the country, according to a new USA Today/Gallup poll.

Paul Thurmond, the son of longtime Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) who finished second to Sen.-designate Tim Scott (R-S.C.) in a 2010 House primary, will not run in the special election for that seat.

Must-reads:

"Proposed ‘fiscal cliff’ deal falls short under three economic theories" -- Jim Tankersley, Washington Post

"View From the Left: Obama ‘Kept Giving Stuff Away’" -- Peter Baker, New York Times

"After a ‘fiscal cliff’ deal, what next?" -- Rosalind S. Helderman, Washington Post

"Resisting the Fiscal Deal" -- Jonathan Weisman, New York Times

"Questioning Hillary Clinton’s concussion, and other outrages" -- Melinda Henneberger, Washington Post

"How House Democrats Learned to Play Hardball" -- Jonathan Strong, Roll Call

 
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Aaron Blake | January 2, 2013