The debate over the “fiscal cliff” is an important tactical one and could have widespread political ramifications. There are complicated issues to consider. Should the Republicans give in to Mr. Obama’s demand that we raise the top tax rates? If so, what should they demand in return? If they don’t get it, is it more prudent to retreat in order to fight another day on more advantageous ground for the GOP? Or should Republicans be willing to go cliff diving with the president, confident that in the end Obama will own any future recession?
Whatever the answer to these tactical questions, the fiscal cliff raises a broader question for conservatism: What do you do when you’ve lost an argument, at least for now? In the post-election ABC News/Washington Post poll, for example, 60 percent of respondents said they support raising taxes on incomes over $250,000 a year. That’s not surprising, since to the degree that there was a centerpiece to the president’s economic argument during the 2012 election, it was to do just that. Mr. Obama was not only re-elected on that platform; he won by a comfortable margin. In the Senate, Democrats gained two seats while in the House they gained eight seats.
So here’s something to consider. Assume for the sake of the argument that this debate has been engaged and adjudicated by the public–and the public prefers the liberal solution (raising taxes on the “rich” in the name of “fairness”). Does the conservative movement, in order to maintain its strength and appeal, make peace with the public’s view? Or attempt to change it? And if so, how?
These questions are too large to tackle in a single post. I simply want to highlight a temptation all of us in politics face, which is to assume that because we hold a certain view, a majority of the public does, too. Those who hold this mindset usually fall back on an explanation that goes something like this: Republican politicians simply didn’t make sufficiently forceful and articulate arguments. If they had, the public would flock to our side since, after all, the arguments are all on our side.
The people who take comfort in this explanation usually reside in the “we have a communications problem” school. They lament the fact that we don’t have another Ronald Reagan to articulate conservatism and if we did, all would be right with the world once more.
I’m partially sympathetic to this view, since it would be a mistake to underestimate the importance of quality candidates in advancing an intellectual cause. At the same time, it’s unwise to pin one’s hopes on producing, election after election, a candidate who possesses a once-in-a-lifetime set of skills. And Reagan himself, by 1980, had made peace with major elements of the New Deal (something he had not done in 1964).
As for the here and now: I’m actually conflicted as to what strategy Republicans ought to adopt in their battle with the president over the fiscal cliff, since I believe there are real downsides to capitulating on raising taxes on the top income earners. But however this issue resolves itself, conservatives should be careful not to assume that the problems we face are merely (or mostly) rhetorical.
It may be that a majority of the public, having heard both sides of the argument, believes that upper-income people are under-taxed. If that’s the case, it would be a significant error for conservatives to assume we simply need to make the same arguments, only louder, with more passion, and with more charts and graphs. It may be that we have to reframe the issue. Or it may be that we have to accept that waging the fight on this ground is injurious to the larger conservative cause. This is a discussion conservatives need to have in a calm, empirical way, resisting the impulse (on all sides) to either purge or impugn motivations — and to bear in mind that if conservatives give in to Obama’s demands, it may be a mistake but it wouldn’t be a violation of a high principle. Deciding on whether the top tax rate should be 35 percent or 39.6 percent, or somewhere in between, is a prudential, not quasi-theological, argument.
A final, related point: Conservatives have to be alert to shifting circumstances. Today we face challenges — including wage stagnation, lack of social mobility, globalization, income inequality, fracturing families, and an entitlement crisis — that are in some respects quite different, or at least more acute, than the ones we faced in 1980, when the threats we faced included soaring interest rates, high inflation, and a top marginal rate of 70 percent. This doesn’t mean that the arguments about tax rates and the size of government are passé. But it does mean conservatism has to take into account a realistic assessment of the sentiments of the public — not in order to bow before them, but to be better able to shape them.
This is not, as some might suggest, an argument to abandon conservatism. It’s rather an argument to revivify it.