Commentary Magazine


Cliff Deal Could Shift Public Opinion

If reports filtering out of Washington are to be believed there is a fair chance that a compromise will be reached sometime over the next three days that will head off the most unpopular aspect of the impending financial crisis: across the board tax increases for all Americans. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the compromise which may be crafted between the White House and the leaders of the House and Senate will avoid dealing with the spending cuts mandated by the sequestration process including devastating decreases for the nation’s defense.

President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have given every indication that they think it is in their interest to see the nation head over the fiscal cliff making any sort of compromise appear like a last minute rescue no matter how unfortunate its terms might be. Most Americans are of the opinion that any deal that would limit the scope of a tax increase is better than no action at all. They are right about that but the fact that it appears impossible to do anything about spending either in the short term or the long right now represents a massive failure on the part of the government. While up until now much of the public still appears to be blaming the mess on recalcitrant Republicans who oppose any tax increases, the unwillingness of the president and Senate Democrats to budge on entitlement spending even in the shadow of potential disaster may eventually lead to a shift in opinion.

If some sort of narrow deal is reached in the coming days, it will make it all the more necessary for Republicans to be even more determined to do something about spending in January. It is at that point that an overconfident President Obama may discover that once he has his long sought after tax hike on the wealthy, the GOP stand against more government spending may start looking a lot more reasonable to most Americans.

The president has been able to demagogue the issue of the rich paying what he says is their fair share and thereby avoided being held accountable for the massive increase in the national debt on his watch. Yet once taxes cease to be the sticking point, it will be difficult if not impossible for him and his party to use the soak-the-rich theme to evade a discussion about how to pay for out-of-control entitlement spending.

House Speaker John Boehner seemed to lose control of the Republican caucus last week in a battle in which conservatives opposed to a tax increase on anyone were numerous enough to prevent his Plan B compromise from passing. That was a blow to his prestige and leadership. But in the coming weeks he could recoup his losses as a united GOP will have the chance to stand up to the Democrats on entitlement reform.

It is that prospect of a new debate in which he will no longer be able to rely on the hoary claims of fairness that Obama rightly fears. It can only be hoped that there are enough Democrats in the House and the Senate who are sufficiently concerned about the impact of the fiscal cliff on their constituents in order to override the desire of the president and Reid to send the country over it.