Commentary Magazine


The GOP’s Weak Hand

In her Wall Street Journal column, Kimberley Strassel writes about two lessons the GOP should take from the fiscal cliff negotiations. One is that President Obama is not, and will never be, a serious negotiating partner. The second is that a house divided is a losing house. Ms. Strassel goes on to counsel the GOP to internalize these recent experiences, since the political dynamic won’t change much. In the future, she writes, Republicans “can continue the folly of believing this president will compromise” — or they can “realize that [Obama] will never be reasonable on taxes — and so they can’t give anything away.”

Ms. Strassel is always intelligent and always worth reading. But in this case there are some elements to the story that may complicate her analysis. It could be House Speaker John Boehner, based on his previous negotiations with Obama, went into the talks with the president hopeful but unconvinced he would get a deal this time. Still, Boehner may have made the calculation that he had to offer a plan that was viewed by the public as reasonable and flexible. Why? Because many Americans have (unfortunately) bought into Obama’s critique of the GOP as being obstinate. That is, even if Obama was not intent on compromising with Republicans, Boehner felt like he had to offer a deal that demonstrated the GOP was not being obstructionist and unyielding. So the speaker first offered raising $800 billion in revenues and then offered a second plan raising taxes on those making a million dollars or more.

As for the House sticking together: The premise here is that in presenting a unified front, Republicans can force Obama to “fully own his mistakes” on issues like the stimulus legislation and ObamaCare. But the difference is that the stimulus package and the Affordable Care Act were considerably less popular than Obama’s stand on raising taxes on the highest income brackets. That’s why Republicans were able to stay united on the former but have broken ranks on the latter. It may be that in this particular circumstance, if Republicans stand shoulder-to-shoulder against raising any taxes, even on those making a million dollars or more, it won’t have the effect of strengthening the GOP but rather weakening it. Going over the fiscal cliff would allow the president to come back with a proposal early next year in which he cuts taxes for 98 percent of the tax-paying public, which is hardly ideal for the Republican Party.

To state the obvious: There are no good options for Republicans, who are playing an exceedingly weak hand. The president knows it. Republicans therefore have to find a way to extricate themselves from this mess while inflicting minimum damage on themselves and the country. They have to embrace a tactical retreat in order to live to fight another day. Agreeing to a bad deal in order to avoid an even worse (political and economic) outcome is not an appealing choice for Republicans. But it may be the most prudent one.