The deal to avoid going over the so-called fiscal cliff was a lousy one: tax rate increases during a weak economy, no spending reductions, nothing on entitlement reform. And yet if House Republicans had succeeded in derailing this deal, negotiated between Senator Mitch McConnell and Vice President Joe Biden, it would have been disastrous.
It would have led to much higher tax increases on all Americans, even beyond the increase in payroll taxes that will now go into effect, and triggered decimating cuts in the defense department. And it would have done a great deal to advance the storyline that Republicans — at least House Republicans — are extremists enamored with nihilism.
I don’t believe that narrative for a moment. Most Republicans want to take meaningful steps to re-limit government, which is entirely admirable. But they faced a particularly bad set of circumstances, and it wasn’t at all clear to me what the game plan would have been if they had succeeded in blowing up the deal passed by an overwhelming margin in the Senate.
To have amended the Senate deal with the most minor spending cuts–essentially pocket change, given the level of deficits and debt we’re dealing with–would have been fiscally meaningless. And if an amended deal had led to no deal at all–which is precisely what would have happened–it would have been calamitous for House Republicans. There is simply no way Republicans could extract a good, or even mediocre, deal from this situation. They had to hope they could minimize the damage, retreat to safer and better ground, and think through a strategy on how to more effectively wage future battles with the president. Republicans can also take some comfort in the fact that Democrats, after having spent a decade demagoguing the Bush tax cuts, made them permanent for 98 percent of Americans. And as the dust settles on this deal, it may dawn on Republicans that Democrats, who presumably were in a position of maximum strength, didn’t get nearly as much as they hoped for. (For more, see Yuval Levin’s excellent analysis here.)
Congressional Republicans who wanted to amend the deal sent to them by the Senate may have been engaging in a primal scream of sorts. They are enormously (and understandably) frustrated at the president’s staggering indifference to our debt crisis and their inability to do anything about it. And because this deal is so bad in so many ways, they wanted to vote against it. But if more of them had voted the way Senator Marco Rubio and Representative Eric Cantor did, they would have badly damaged their party and their country.
I for one am glad that cooler and wiser head prevailed and that this bad deal didn’t give way to a much worse outcome. Sometimes that’s the best you can hope for in the aftermath of a damaging election loss.