It almost goes without saying that even if a deal is somehow reached today that would prevent a massive tax increase and defense cuts, the disgust of the public at the fiscal cliff hijinks that have gone on in Washington the last few weeks will outweigh the relief they feel. If the last-second talks between Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell succeed in crafting a short-term compromise that enough Democrats and Republicans can live with, the country will be spared the disaster that would ensue should the scheduled across-the-board tax increases and devastating sequestration of funds for national defense be implemented. But as much as both sides have spent more time casting aspersions at each other’s motives than negotiating in good faith, there needs to be a full accounting of why this happened in the way that it did.
To say that both Republicans and Democrats have failed in this episode is stating the obvious. But each failed in different ways and an analysis of their shortcomings tells us a lot about the direction in which the country is heading.
The Republicans failed because a critical mass of the House GOP caucus believed their mandate to stop Washington’s out-of-control spending and taxing outweighed their responsibility to keep the government running properly. The Tea Partiers were right that the country has a spending problem rather than one based in taxes that were too low, and their desire to reform the entitlements that are sinking the nation in debt brought a note of sanity to the irrational nature of the way Congress usually does business. But the idea they were empowered to stand in the way of any compromise on the debt ceiling and now the fiscal cliff was just as foolish as the refusal of the other side to address the root cause of the crisis.
After their smashing victory in the 2010 midterms, conservatives were right to say they were elected to throw a monkey wrench into the government machine even if the Senate and the White House were still controlled by the Democrats. But after the people voted to keep government divided last month, there was an obligation on the part of even the most hard-core conservatives to compromise in order to keep the government afloat. They may have been faced with a negotiating partner in the president who was working to prevent a deal since he believes he benefits politically from the implementation of the fiscal cliff taxes and cuts. Yet it would be dishonest to absolve the GOP caucus from blame here, since they were unable to pass House Speaker John Boehner’s Plan B compromise because many of them simply would not sign onto any tax increases of any kind.
Being right about policy does not excuse a political party from the need to keep the government functioning. In this case, that means the reforming zeal of many conservatives that is to be praised in principle prevented them from doing what needed to be done in practice to prevent today’s impending catastrophe. Though the public is wrong to blame Republicans more than Democrats for this mess, it isn’t wrong to see the GOP has having potentially sacrificed the well-being of the citizens for the sake of political purity.
As it turns out, the Democrats are guilty of almost the exact opposite sins.
Over the last year and a half, the president and his party correctly gauged the political effects of any discussion about entitlement reform. They knew doing anything to cut back on such spending would be unpopular even if many of them understood it was necessary. But rather than deal in good faith with the Republicans for a deal that would address the country’s long-term peril rather than merely a momentary shortfall, they spent this time engaging in demagoguery about the wealthy and their opponents. That was smart politics but bad public policy.
The tax increases they have been demanding will do little to fix the deficit. Indeed, they may prove entirely counterproductive since their soak-the-rich scheme will probably diminish the investments needed to produce robust growth instead of the anemic recovery we have been experiencing. Yet the only fact Democrats seemed capable of grasping was the one that told them that the public was dubious about the Republicans’ reform plans and that such ideas were unpopular.
That has left us with one party with sound economic principles but which lacked the willingness to compromise for the sake of the public good, and another with sound political instincts but a cynical view about policy that makes problem solving impossible. The Democrats’ intransigent cynicism is far more disreputable than the Republicans disregard for political reality, but put the two together and you get what we are currently seeing: a perfect storm of government dysfunction. If the long-term fiscal crisis is to be addressed it will require both parties to sober up and address their shortcomings.