Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The case for cliff diving

By Frank Moraes

Noam Scheiber over at The New Republic makes the case: "To Save His Second Term, Obama Must Go Over the Fiscal Cliff." He counters the standard thinking that while it may be tactically smart to go over the Fiscal Cliff, it is bad strategy. He quotes a number of people who argue that if Obama wins this fight, he will so anger the Republicans that he won't be able to get anything done for the next two years. Scheiber calls this for the nonsense that it is.

Anyone who reads me with any regularity know that I don't buy any of this talk about honor among politicians. In fact, I've been defending the Republicans for their intransigence. Politics is about getting power to enact the policies that you favor. That's why there are two political parties: because they disagree. That's why we work to win elections. Bipartisanship doesn't make any sense as an end in itself. It only works when each side thinks the trade offs are worth while. We could have a deal where the top tax rate goes up to 99% and we end Medicare and Social Security. That would be bipartisan: both parties would hate it. But both sides would be giving up something that's important to them! So it must be good, right?

 
Scheiber says there are currently two kinds of Republicans in Congress: "moderately delusional and the utterly, irreconcilably delusional." The moderately delusional are those who understand that the tax fight cannot be won. The irreconcilably delusional are the ones who think that with a stiff upper lib and a song in your heart, all things are possible. They aren't. But as Scheiber notes, even the moderately delusional crowd is wrong: why would Obama take a 37% top tax bracket when he automatically gets a 39.6% top tax bracket by doing nothing at all?


This isn't the argument that Scheiber is making, however. He just brings this up to show who Obama is dealing with. He notes that as during the debt limit negotiations, the Republicans really believe that America is on there side in this fight. (The polls? Why would Republicans listen to polls are this point?) They need an object lesson. On January 1 they will get that lesson. During the first day or two of the new year, Republicans all over the nation will have an epiphany, "Now that the top tax rate is 39.6%, I see why I couldn't stop it!" Some people are slow. Right now, they are the little party that couldn't. Next year, they'll be the little party that finally sees that it couldn't.

Scheiber puts it more prosaically, but doubtlessly more clearly:


But the real key here is the political upshot of going over the cliff: Republicans will see in defeat that it's not Obama who has somehow pulled one over on their leadership or simply played his hand better. Instead, they will see that they have been completely repudiated by the public in a way that even the election didn't impress on them. It will, in other words, be as close as you get in politics to a total victory for one side. It will highlight the perils of following one's base too slavishly, a lesson that will come in handy not just on future fiscal policy fights (there will in all likelihood still be a debt ceiling to raise next year), but, one can imagine, also on an issue like immigration. Which is to say, it's only by forcing the GOP off the cliff that Obama will find the space he needs to govern.

As I've written before, this is what comes from the Republican winner-take-all approach to governance. In 2011, they chose not to take Obama's generous (sell-out) deal to the Republicans, and bet on his defeat in 2012. They lost that bet. And when the top margin tax rate is back up to 39.6%, this will all come suddenly into focus.

(Cross-posted at Frankly Curious.)

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