Commentary Magazine


Topic: House Republican Leadership

Must GOP Bow to Obama’s Fiscal Demands?

With the president’s election victory still fresh in their minds, Democrats are assuming that Tuesday’s results mean that Congressional Republicans are bound to bow to their demands for tax increases. Such sentiments are understandable given the Democrats’ clear victory in the presidential contest as well as their gains in Congress. Having campaigned on a platform of raising taxes on the wealthy, there may be little reason to assume President Obama is going to back down on his demands and, as many liberals have already pointed out, he’s going to be bitterly criticized if he does compromise on his soak-the-rich approach. Yet though Republicans may still be shell shocked by the election returns, there is no reason for them to cave in on their principles just because the president and his media cheering section expect them to.

House Speaker John Boehner sounded an appropriate note, albeit one that was pure political boilerplate, when he said yesterday, “Mr. President, this is your moment. We’re ready to be led — not as Democrats or Republicans, but as Americans. We want you to lead, not as a liberal or a conservative, but as president of the United States of America.” But his airy rhetoric contains a kernel of truth. If the country is to avoid going over the fiscal cliff in the next month, and avoid the terrible consequences that would result from a failure to reach a budget deal, it is going to require the kind of presidential leadership and ability to compromise that Obama has never been willing to provide in his first four years in office. The question before the country is not so much the one that liberals have been asking about Republicans simply waving the white flag as it is whether the president can actually bargain in good faith and get a deal.

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With the president’s election victory still fresh in their minds, Democrats are assuming that Tuesday’s results mean that Congressional Republicans are bound to bow to their demands for tax increases. Such sentiments are understandable given the Democrats’ clear victory in the presidential contest as well as their gains in Congress. Having campaigned on a platform of raising taxes on the wealthy, there may be little reason to assume President Obama is going to back down on his demands and, as many liberals have already pointed out, he’s going to be bitterly criticized if he does compromise on his soak-the-rich approach. Yet though Republicans may still be shell shocked by the election returns, there is no reason for them to cave in on their principles just because the president and his media cheering section expect them to.

House Speaker John Boehner sounded an appropriate note, albeit one that was pure political boilerplate, when he said yesterday, “Mr. President, this is your moment. We’re ready to be led — not as Democrats or Republicans, but as Americans. We want you to lead, not as a liberal or a conservative, but as president of the United States of America.” But his airy rhetoric contains a kernel of truth. If the country is to avoid going over the fiscal cliff in the next month, and avoid the terrible consequences that would result from a failure to reach a budget deal, it is going to require the kind of presidential leadership and ability to compromise that Obama has never been willing to provide in his first four years in office. The question before the country is not so much the one that liberals have been asking about Republicans simply waving the white flag as it is whether the president can actually bargain in good faith and get a deal.

Ever since last year’s debt ceiling crisis that set in motion the events that could lead to an automatic tax increase and sequestration of funds that would require massive across-the-board budget cuts for vital services and national defense, both the president and his antagonists have acted as if they had nothing to lose by going to the brink. In particular, the president’s strategy has seemed to revolve around an effort to drive the GOP leaders in the House away from a deal so as to be able to use their refusal to bow to his dictates as a political talking point. Obama’s model was the 1995 government shutdown in which President Clinton managed to outmaneuver then House Speaker Newt Gingrich into a corner and make him take the blame for the problem.

Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor managed to avoid being fitted for the Gingrich clown suits but no deal was ever struck that they — or their caucus — could live with. But most observers seem to think that after the president’s re-election they have no choice but to give in on the extension of the Bush tax cuts. Congress’s reputation is in tatters and it stands to reason that the GOP would prefer to avoid not only the catastrophic cuts and taxes that a failure to make a deal would entail but the blame for the economic distress that would ensue.

However, the House Republicans aren’t the only ones feeling some pressure.

Most Democrats may be strutting this week and engaging in triumphalist rhetoric about their ability to dominate the country’s politics for the foreseeable future. But the president understands that a budget standoff could trigger an economic downturn that could cripple the start of his second term and set in motion a train of events that will make the next four years a nightmare for the country and for him. Though Republicans don’t want to be the scapegoats for a budget meltdown, the president needs a deal far more than they do.

But in order to get one, the president is going to have to eschew the sort of high-handed approach to Congress that has been the pattern for his first term. While that worked politically for him, it also served to give Boehner less room to negotiate since the president infuriated the GOP caucus and helped make it easier for them to dig in their heels and oppose a compromise. If the president wants Boehner to give him a deal, that will mean sitting down and asking for more revenue in ways that the GOP can live with–such as closing loopholes and deductions, but not confiscatory tax policies that will cripple economic growth.

For two years, President Obama has refused to take this deal, since it was in his political interest to portray Boehner and the GOP Congress as extremists. But though his supporters don’t seem to realize it, his political interests now lie in a policy that requires him to avoid the class warfare rhetoric and tactics designed to demonize Republicans he has employed in past negotiations.

The president needs to negotiate and take the deal Boehner is offering him with modifications that will allow him to save face. Doing so is good for the country and for his prospects for a second term that isn’t as awful as those of most of his predecessors.

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Other than That, Mr. Reid, How’s the Senate?

Well, now that Beau Biden has left the playing field, it looks like Delaware has joined North Dakota on the list of  lost Democratic Senate seats: “A new Rasmussen Reports telephone survey of likely Delaware voters shows longtime GOP congressman Mike Castle leading New Castle County Executive Chris Coons 56% to 27%. Five percent (5%) prefer some other candidate, and 13% are undecided.” So if you’re keeping track, the loss of those two would bring the Democrats down to 57.

Not all was bleak for the Democrats yesterday, however. Rep. Mike Pence told us he isn’t running for the Senate in Indiana. He explained why: “First because I have been given the responsibility to shape the Republican comeback as a member of the House Republican Leadership and, second, because I believe Republicans will win back the majority in the House of Representatives in 2010.” Well, I suppose it’s not unalloyed good news for the Democrats when Pence’s rationale is that it looks like the House is going to flip to the Republicans. Still, Michael Barone says incumbent Evan Bayh is in big trouble in polling matchups against much lesser-known figures:

Evan Bayh is running far behind the way he ran once Indiana voters had a chance to observe his performance as governor, significantly behind the way he ran in his first race for governor, significantly behind his father’s winning percentages in three Senate races and close only to the percentage his father won when he was defeated in the heavily Republican year of 1980, when Ronald Reagan was carrying Indiana over Jimmy Carter by a margin of 56%-38%. …

Evan Bayh did not win five statewide races in Indiana, a state that tends to favor the other party, by being stupid. Now the question is whether he is smart enough to get himself out of the hole Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid have dug for him—and which he was willing, when the Senate had 60 Democrats, to jump in himself.

And that, I think, is the real impact of the polls and the Democratic departures/retirements: those struggling not to be swept out in the 2010 wave will increasingly look at each and every vote through the prism of their own electorate and re-election self-interest. Yes, what a novel concept! But that was not the story in 2009, when congressmen and senators were persuaded over and over again to ignore everything else (e.g., polls, town hall attendees, jammed switchboards) and adhere to the Obama-Reid-Pelosi line. That dynamic is very likely to reverse itself — leaving the “leadership” to chase after members, while members attune themselves to voters back home. In this environment, it’s unclear how, if at all, the White House can set the agenda. After all, it was Obama who got his party into this position, and his fellow Democrats may be less than amenable to taking further direction from the guy that sunk their party’s fortunes.

Well, now that Beau Biden has left the playing field, it looks like Delaware has joined North Dakota on the list of  lost Democratic Senate seats: “A new Rasmussen Reports telephone survey of likely Delaware voters shows longtime GOP congressman Mike Castle leading New Castle County Executive Chris Coons 56% to 27%. Five percent (5%) prefer some other candidate, and 13% are undecided.” So if you’re keeping track, the loss of those two would bring the Democrats down to 57.

Not all was bleak for the Democrats yesterday, however. Rep. Mike Pence told us he isn’t running for the Senate in Indiana. He explained why: “First because I have been given the responsibility to shape the Republican comeback as a member of the House Republican Leadership and, second, because I believe Republicans will win back the majority in the House of Representatives in 2010.” Well, I suppose it’s not unalloyed good news for the Democrats when Pence’s rationale is that it looks like the House is going to flip to the Republicans. Still, Michael Barone says incumbent Evan Bayh is in big trouble in polling matchups against much lesser-known figures:

Evan Bayh is running far behind the way he ran once Indiana voters had a chance to observe his performance as governor, significantly behind the way he ran in his first race for governor, significantly behind his father’s winning percentages in three Senate races and close only to the percentage his father won when he was defeated in the heavily Republican year of 1980, when Ronald Reagan was carrying Indiana over Jimmy Carter by a margin of 56%-38%. …

Evan Bayh did not win five statewide races in Indiana, a state that tends to favor the other party, by being stupid. Now the question is whether he is smart enough to get himself out of the hole Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid have dug for him—and which he was willing, when the Senate had 60 Democrats, to jump in himself.

And that, I think, is the real impact of the polls and the Democratic departures/retirements: those struggling not to be swept out in the 2010 wave will increasingly look at each and every vote through the prism of their own electorate and re-election self-interest. Yes, what a novel concept! But that was not the story in 2009, when congressmen and senators were persuaded over and over again to ignore everything else (e.g., polls, town hall attendees, jammed switchboards) and adhere to the Obama-Reid-Pelosi line. That dynamic is very likely to reverse itself — leaving the “leadership” to chase after members, while members attune themselves to voters back home. In this environment, it’s unclear how, if at all, the White House can set the agenda. After all, it was Obama who got his party into this position, and his fellow Democrats may be less than amenable to taking further direction from the guy that sunk their party’s fortunes.

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