There’s no doubt that a president who has just been re-elected has a lot more leverage in a negotiation than the House Republican leadership. But if President Obama is feeling confident that he can have his way in any deal that prevents the country from heading over the fiscal cliff, it’s not just because of his victory over Mitt Romney earlier this month. The spectacle of House Republicans starting to snipe at each other and tax activist Grover Norquist is evidence that the campaign to pressure Congress into backing tax increases being orchestrated by the White House appears to be working.
While the pushback against Norquist’s heavy-handed attempts to bludgeon Republicans into obedience is understandable, both the anti-tax purists and those more amenable to compromise are playing right into Obama’s hands. Rather than the debate centering on whether tax increases will hurt the economy and the need for Democrats to put entitlement spending on the table in any deal to prevent the country from heading over the fiscal cliff, right now the debate seems to center on a growing civil war within GOP ranks. Rather than sticking with House Speaker Boehner and strengthening his hand in negotiations, many Republicans are allowing themselves to be panicked into a stand that would effectively allow the president’s plans for tax increases to go forward without any commitments about reforming the tax code or entitlement spending. If the trend continues and a critical mass of Boehner’s caucus breaks, the result will not just be a tactical defeat on a point where Obama may have the country’s support, but a rout that will enable the president to avoid any commitment to significant spending cuts.
The president was happy to mention the fact that Oklahoma Republican Tom Cole publicly called yesterday for a quick deal with the White House that would allow some taxes to go up while getting nothing about tax reform or entitlements. Cole isn’t alone; many other Republicans are reading poll numbers that show most Americans support measures that would soak the rich, and think that they are better off ditching their principles than standing firm and getting blamed for the failure to get an agreement.
The danger of Republicans getting the lion’s share of the blame for the country heading over the fiscal cliff is real. It may be that such a view is based on a skewed view of the standoff in which the president’s intransigence and ideological fervor for tax hikes is ignored while Tea Partiers are spoken of as extremists. The president seems eager for just such a debacle since he believes it would hurt his opponents and give him even more support in the next round of budget talks.
But what is starting to look like a rush to the lifeboats by many in the GOP caucus is not only counter-productive; it isn’t necessary.
The rush to a quick agreement would get the GOP off the hook for the crisis. But if they fold quickly rather than allowing Boehner to get them the best deal possible, they will regret it. A bargain may eventually have to be accepted that would allow increased federal revenues. But it is sheer cowardice on the part of Republicans to concede defeat before Democrats have even had to put a rudimentary offer on a more rational tax code or entitlement cuts on the table.
Democrats are right to note that elections have consequences, but that doesn’t mean Republicans need to simply give up. The GOP majority won re-election by pledging to stop the growth of the government and tax increases. That doesn’t mean that they must go to their graves vowing fealty to Norquist’s pledges if a reasonable alternative can be reached that would achieve their long-range goal of changing the system. But to quit the fight now just because some are feeling the pressure being exerted by the mainstream media and the Democrats would doom any hopes for reform over the next two years.
There is no guarantee that if they do stand their ground Obama will listen to reason and compromise on his demands. But if the panic spreads, then House Republicans might as well not even show up in January since the Democrats will have already beaten back their attempt to address the problems they were sent to Washington to fix.