The Green Lantern theory of the fiscal cliff

September 13, 2012

My friend Matt Yglesias used to talk about the Green Lantern Theory of foreign policy, which held that the only thing holding the United States back from achieving its international goals — be they a democratic Iraq or a submissive China — was our lack of will.


{J.D. Hancock/FLickr/Creative Commons)

There's a related school of thought when it comes to U.S. politics, in which the only thing holding back the president is his willingness to adopt a sufficiently stern tone with the other side, whoever they might be. Sen. John McCain articulated a version of this theory in 2006, when he said, "One of the things I would do if I were president would be to sit the Shiites and the Sunnis down and say, 'Stop the bulls--t."

It's even more common in domestic politics, where pundits of all stripes think that what's standing between President Obama and, say, a public option is a willingness to yell at people. Brendan Nyhan rounds up a few examples of this school of thought here.

The Green Lantern theory typically fails because the U.S. system of government is set up so that there's very little the president can do absent congressional cooperation. But Mayor Michael Bloomberg has a version of the Green Lantern theory that actually makes some sense. As he notes, if Obama is reelected, he's in a very unusual, and very strong, negotiating position:

In terms of the tax code, Bloomberg believes the answer is quite simple: Washington should just get on with passing a deficit reduction plan modeled on Bowles-Simpson. While he blamed both parties for the gridlock, the mayor insisted that Democrats “hold all the cards” when it comes to the fiscal cliff.

 

“They can just say to Republicans: ‘All the Bush tax cuts on all income groups are expiring on December 31. You need us to stop it. Now, do you want to talk about spending cuts, and adopting comprehensive tax reform with a lower corporate tax rate or not?’ ” Bloomberg said. “And if Republicans are serious about spurring growth, they’ll take the offer.”

To some degree, this would have to be coupled with an announced willingness to pass Simpson-Bowles, or something very much like it. For the politics of a play like this to work out, the Obama administration needs to be able to say, in effect, that it's ready to compromise, and it's up to the Republicans to come to the table. Rightly or wrongly, only Simpson-Bowles commands sufficient brand equity in the compromise space to make the message work. And given that the Obama administration is willing to accept less in taxes and less in defense cuts than Simpson-Bowles envisions should mean there's a deal to be made.

But putting that aside, Bloomberg is right that the Obama administration holds the cards here, at least initially. It gets a bit more complicated a few months later when the clock strikes midnight on the debt ceiling again. At that point, Republicans have a gun to the economy's head again, though whether public opinion permits them do that for a second time after they've spent two months refusing to agree to Simpson-Bowles is an open question.

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Dylan Matthews · September 13, 2012