In search of: magnanimity and political cover

Excellent Strassel in today’s Wall Street Journal: Cliff-top lessons for the GOP

My own experience discussing our fiscal mess with progressive friends has taught me there’s not really much they’re actually willing to offer as part of the “compromise” they seek.  When they urge me to go back to the tax rates of the 1990s, I ask for only one thing in return: that we also return to the spending rates of the 1990s.  Bipartisan, fair, and a true compromise.  No takers, so far.  Not even a counter offer or reasoned response.

Three times in my adult life we’ve done a deal that raises taxes now in exchange for $X in future spending cuts for each $1 in higher taxes, and three times the taxers bargained in bad faith and failed to honor their end of the agreement.  So this time:  spare me the promises and show me the cuts.

POTUS has the unique responsibility to create the political space required for the tough action.  It’s something only the person with the bully pulpit can do: create the narrative that provides the cover for politicians to cast career-threatening votes.   So far he seems interested in something else.

Here are a few excerpts from Strassel, the entire piece is worth your time:

…Mr. Obama is not, and will never be, a serious negotiating partner. House Speaker John Boehner came out of the election assuming his counterpart—faced with a dramatic economic moment—would act the statesman. With working-class taxpayers on the line, the military on the chopping block and the economy in the balance, Mr. Boehner found it impossible to believe the president would fail to see the risks at hand.

Then again, this was the same president who in 2011, during the debt-ceiling negotiations, proved willing to risk national default if it meant he could keep spending. His strategy was to drag Mr. Boehner into backroom talks and demand the GOP roll over on taxes, all the while nickel-and-diming Republicans on even the barest of spending cuts. The only thing that has changed since then is that Mr. Obama won another election.

In that context, it seems no surprise that Mr. Boehner’s worthy offer, in November, to offer Mr. Obama the tax revenue he sought—by closing deductions on higher earners—was treated with derision. Mr. Obama’s only response was to pocket that offer and demand more.

The GOP’s hope that this White House would walk the plank with it on entitlement reform was equally fanciful. Mr. Obama won’t willingly agree to any serious cuts, to any meaningful entitlement reform, ever. He will risk everything—the “middle class” he claims to want to protect, his economic legacy—to continue growing government.

The GOP would do well to internalize these recent experiences, because no matter what happens next, the political dynamic won’t much change. If we go over the cliff, Mr. Obama will use the drama again to pressure Republicans to enter into negotiations for a big deal. Even if Congress does a small “fix” in the coming days—one that raises taxes on some Americans—the president will look to the coming debt-ceiling fight to push for more big talks.

At that point, Republicans will face a choice. They can continue the folly of believing this president will compromise. Or they can realize that he will never be reasonable on taxes—and so they can’t give anything away. They can realize that he won’t hold hands with them on entitlement reform—and so they’ll have to state their own big demands and force him to explain his lack of leadership. They can realize that backroom talks are a sucker’s game.

If they intend, meanwhile, to use the debt ceiling as their leverage to force Mr. Obama into spending cuts, they’ll have to be united. This president will pounce on any sign of weakness, and he is adept at using the press to highlight GOP cracks. Mr. Obama is in fact counting on such a scenario, already positioning himself as the guy who won’t budge, the better to spook GOP members into breaking—as they did in this recent tax fight.

For all the ugliness of this lame-duck session, it did have one merit: It has exposed how President Obama intends to govern in a second term. He’s intent on narrow political victories and on damaging his opponents. Republicans can be grateful at least for that insight, and proceed accordingly.

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One Response to In search of: magnanimity and political cover

  1. Paul Marks says:

    “When they ask me to go back to the tax rates of the 1990s, I ask for only one thing in return – that we go back to the government spending levels of the 1990s”.

    The correct reply – very good.

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