Democrats will lose now. But they can win later.
Democrats are going to lose this one. The first stage of the emerging deal doesn’t include revenue, doesn’t include stimulus, and lets Republicans pocket a trillion dollars or more in cuts without offering anything to Democrats in return.
The second stage convenes a congressional “Supercommittee” to recommend up to $2 trillion in further cuts, and if their plan doesn’t pass Congress, there’s an enforcement mechanism that begins making automatic, across-the-board cuts to almost all categories of spending. So heads Democrats lose, tails Republicans win.
It’s difficult to see how it could have ended otherwise. Virtually no Democrats are willing to go past Aug. 2 without raising the debt ceiling. Plenty of Republicans are prepared to blow through the deadline. That’s not a dynamic that lends itself to a deal. That’s a dynamic that lends itself to a ransom.
But Democrats will have their turn. On Dec. 31, 2012, three weeks before the end of President Barack Obama’s current term in office, the Bush tax cuts expire. Income tax rates will return to their Clinton-era levels. That amounts to a $3.6 trillion tax increase over 10 years, three or four times the $800 billion to $1.2 trillion in revenue increases that Obama and Speaker John Boehner were kicking around. And all Democrats need to do to secure that deal is...nothing.
This scenario is the inverse of the current debt-ceiling debate, in which inaction will lead to an outcome -- a government default -- that Democrats can’t stomach and Republicans think they can. There is only one thing that could stand in the way of Democrats passing significant new revenues on the last day of 2012: the Obama administration.
Republicans -- and even some Democrats -- think that the Obama administration lives to collect revenue. The truth is closer to the opposite. Senior administration aides view the expiration of the Bush tax cuts as less of an opportunity than a chore. About four-fifths of the cuts go to households making less than $250,000 a year, and they don’t want to raise taxes on those folks. They don’t like the politics of the issue, either. It’s an article of faith among Democratic strategists that debates on taxes inevitably favor Republicans, allowing Democrats to be hammered from the right and undermined from the left. White House aides would rather focus on “win the future” issues like infrastructure, education and energy.
The White House’s strategy in the debt-ceiling negotiations has reflected its ambivalence, with Obama trying to extract either as much revenue as Republicans would allow or as little as Democrats would accept. Obama even offered Boehner a deal in which the Bush tax cuts would be extended right now, so Republicans wouldn’t have to fear a subsequent negotiation in which they lacked leverage. Boehner rejected that deal and, in doing, might have saved the safety net.
But the Obama administration doesn’t want to take its second chance. They argue that the economy will still be recovering in 2013, and so it’s not an ideal time for a large tax increase. True. But what happens in 2012 is not simply setting tax policy for 2013. It’s setting tax policy for decades to come.
Health costs are rising and the Baby Boomers are retiring. If taxes don’t rise, none of these commitments are sustainable. And Republicans, in normal times, are perfectly capable of blocking any and all attempts to raise taxes. For Democrats, the expiration of the Bush tax cuts presents a unique opportunity in which GOP intransigence will mean more new revenues rather than no new revenues.
The alternative has been on clear display in recent months. Republicans can’t necessarily sell the country on big cuts in federal programs, but they can make them necessary. All they need to do is hold the line aganst taxes, allow deficits will continue to mount, and then use forcing events like the debt ceiling or the budget to demand huge spending cuts. A world in which the two parties can’t agree on tax increases but can agree on spending cuts is one in which the government eventually shrinks dramatically. Republicans understand this. Do Democrats?
A year ago, I was less concerned about the Bush tax cuts. I assumed, as did many in Washington, that the Republicans’ antipathy to taxes was a negotiating stance. Eventually, we would strike a “grand bargain” that would reduce spending and raise revenue substantially. The past few months have proved me wrong.
Republicans have shown, that they will block any and all tax increases, no matter what incentives they are offered in return and no matter how dire the consequences of their refusal. Next year’s deadline offers Democrats their only chance to negotiate from a superior strategic position. Republicans will still be able to refuse to raise taxes. But if they do, it won’t matter. The only way they can succeed in keeping taxes from rising is if the Obama administration and the Democrats stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them to extend the Bush tax cuts.