Those who were wondering at the truculent tone exhibited by President Obama yesterday afternoon during remarks delivered at a White House event got their answer today. Negotiations between Vice President Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had already produced a deal by the time the president spoke. That should have meant at least a temporary cessation of partisan warfare, but Obama was having none of it. As I wrote yesterday, though the deal was very much on his terms–including a tax increase on those making $400,000 or more a year and had nothing in it about the spending cuts or entitlement reform that is necessary to fix the country’s budget problems–the president was not in a conciliatory mood. He made it clear that subsequent negotiations about the debt ceiling and the budget would focus on even more tax increases rather than address the nation’s spending problem. He spoke contemptuously of the Republican position. Rather than uniting the nation just at the moment when it appeared a bipartisan compromise (albeit one that was far closer to his demands than anything proposed by the GOP) had been achieved, he seemed intent on goading House Republicans into rejecting the deal.
One day later, it looks like he got his wish. Though the Tea Partiers in the GOP caucus might have opposed the deal anyway, as did presidential hopefuls Rand Paul and Marco Rubio in the Senate, Obama’s remarks had to have pushed many Republicans over the edge into opposition. Though the alternative to passing the deal, which would entail sending the country over the fiscal cliff and generate ruinous tax increases for all Americans, is unthinkable, it is hard to blame House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and other Republicans for thinking they are dealing with a negotiating partner in the president who is only interested in raising taxes and not in dealing with the nation’s problems. Though it can be argued that the GOP will be in a stronger position to fight the Democrats on entitlement reforms once taxes on the wealthy have already been raised, Cantor and his colleagues understand that Obama will not negotiate in good faith two months later on the debt ceiling any more than he has this time. That’s exactly the message the president wanted to send, and his intended audience responded just as he wished.
Throughout the debt ceiling talks last year and the recent discussions about the budget, the president has acted as he if wanted to avoid a deal with the GOP. The lip service he paid to the notion of compromise was always overshadowed by incendiary class warfare rhetoric that was aimed at his liberal base. Sending the nation over the cliff also achieves his objectives: raising taxes to create more revenue for the government to spend and forcing cuts in defense that he favors anyway.
That’s why many Republicans have suspected all along that the president’s refusal to get off his high horse and actually negotiate about entitlement reform was intended to blow up any hopes of an accord. At every stage of the talks when logic would have called for the White House to strike a moderate tone about the budget, Obama has instead done his best to incite the GOP caucus to stand their ground on taxes and spending. In doing so yesterday he merely confirmed the belief held by many conservatives that any concessions on their part would be merely pocketed by the Democrats before being asked for more.
Republicans will pay a high price for taking the president’s bait and voting the compromise down in the House or amending it to the point that it will be rejected by the Democrat-controlled Senate. Though it may be unfair for Americans to blame the GOP more than a president who is every bit the ideologue that his Tea Party foes are, there is little doubt that a no vote from the House will result in the Republicans being blamed for higher taxes on the middle class. As much as the deal is a bad one, allowing those taxes to rise is bad politics as well as bad policy. Most of all, in doing so, House Republicans are playing right into the president’s hands.