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America Edges Ever Closer to the Fiscal Cliff

Some thoughts on the Republicans pulling their Plan B tax bill from the House floor last night:

1. Speaker Boehner was embarrassed and is badly weakened. He may not be deposed since Majority Leader Eric Cantor and other key Republicans were by his side during negotiations, and they supported Plan B. Mr. Boehner is also generally well liked within his caucus. There’s no obvious person who could challenge him and win. And everyone knows the speaker was forced to play a bad hand. Still, this was a humiliation for Mr. Boehner. He may not recover from this vote of no confidence from his own members.   

2. It’s possible that a new deal emerges – but it would probably have to come from the Senate. And even if Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell were to find common ground – which is far from certain – a new plan would also need to pass in the House. And as last night showed, that simply may not happen.

3. House Republicans have now managed to put themselves into a situation in which if we do go over the “fiscal cliff,” early next year President Obama will propose tax cuts for somewhere around 98 percent of the American people. If House Republicans go along with Obama, then it may dawn on them that Plan B was a significantly better deal from their perspective, since it limited tax increases to those making a million dollars or more rather than whatever lower figure Obama will propose. 

If House Republicans don’t go along with Obama, then they will vote to prevent tax cuts for 98 percent of the American people simply because tax cuts weren’t also given to the top income earners. I understand that Republicans will have supported tax cuts for 100 percent of the public rather than 98 percent. Still, the political effect of all this may well be that Barack Obama will have created a situation in which he’s viewed as the champion of tax cuts for the vast majority of Americans. That would be a stunning achievement by Obama and House Republicans, who could hardly have done more damage to themselves if they tried.

4. The results of this week – and especially if we go over the fiscal cliff – will be that the Republican Party will look increasingly extreme and adamantine. Even if you believe that characterization is completely or largely untrue and unfair, it exists, and conservatism has to take into account the world as it is.

Edmund Burke, in defining statesmanship, wrote, “We compensate, we reconcile, we balance. We are able to unite into one consistent whole the various anomalies and contending principles that are found in the minds and affairs of men.” That sensibility has been missing among some House Republicans, I think – many of whom seem to have convinced themselves that they made a stand on principle that will redound to their credit. They may be right, but count me skeptical. House conservatives got what they wanted, which is no deal and (perhaps) a trip over the fiscal cliff with their flag flying. If that happens, I suspect the GOP, conservatism, and the tax cutting cause will all suffer. Which may eventually underscore for them why prudence is such an important political virtue.

5. President Obama is far from blameless in all this. He never gave John Boehner enough in exchange for Boehner’s willingness to break with a decades-long GOP commitment not to raise tax rates. If Obama wanted to avoid going over the fiscal cliff, he once again showed that he is a fairly inept negotiator. If he does want to go over the fiscal cliff, he may become quite familiar with the axiom, “Be careful what you wish for.” Because as Bob Woodward put it, “This is the Obama era, it is [the president’s] economy. Speaker Boehner’s an important player and this is significant, but it is Obama’s job to lead and define — so if there re negative consequences here, particularly in the economy, it is going to be, ‘In the Obama era, things didn’t get fixed.’”

6. Quite apart from who deserves the most blame for where we are, there is something slightly depressing in terms of the failure to govern in a responsible and reasonable way. Our political system right now is not only unable to rise to the moment and confront the challenges we face; it seems to be badly broken and staggeringly incompetent. The lack of trust in, and growing cynicism toward, our governing institutions will only increase. And that is not a good thing for a self-governing republic.

In a terrific essay on the late, great James Q. Wilson, his former student John DiIulio, Jr. wrote, “During his last decade, Wilson worried more than he had previously about what, in the closing paragraph of his textbook [on American government], he described as ‘a decline in public confidence in those who manage…government. We expect more and more from government,’ [Wilson] observed, ‘but are less and less certain that we will get it, or get it in a form and at a cost that we find acceptable.’”

If Professor Wilson was alive today, I imagine his concerns would be even greater about the country he loved so much and so well. So should ours.

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