As weeks have now become days before we reach the edge of the fiscal cliff, it has become increasingly clear that the political contest is a mismatch.
It might not be quite as bad as the Seahawks 58-0 humiliation of the Cardinals last week, but it certainly won’t be like the Redskins-Ravens overtime squeaker. The morning line spread should be Barack Obama by two touchdowns.
Start by considering the combatants. This fight is essentially between a freshly re-elected and re-invigorated president already prone to narcissism and now at the height of post-2009 public approval – near 60% – and a speaker of the house, John Boehner, who is opposed or loathed by a significant portion of his own party’s conservative base, and whose public face can best be described as dour.
Then consider the audience. The battle is being conducted before an electorate that demonstrated on November 6 that they care more about sizzle than steak. An electorate that voted to continue their unsustainable bevy of benefits rather than consider the consequences for their children and the nation. An electorate that claimed to be concerned about the economy above all else, yet voted to retain an incumbent who has presided over a a low growth, low employment economy for four years while adding some $6,000,000,000,000 to the national debt. Unsurprisingly, most polls show that a majority of voters will blame the GOP if we fall off the fiscal cliff.
Consider the timeline. Obama is now at the height of his political power. He will never again be required to face the voters, and may well be unconcerned even about the fate of his own party in 2014. After all, this is a president who proved during his campaign that he would make his own re-election his only priority. He knows that most all of his most significant legislative initiatives were completed in his first term and that the GOP-controlled House will be able to block any significant new legislation in his second term, so he did little to help down-ticket candidates.
And given that his stated goal is to fundamentally transform America, why should he be concerned even about losing the senate when he knows that the next four years for him will be defined mostly by his own executive branch initiatives – more regulation, more executive orders, more leftists appointed to the courts, and more bully pulpit on issues that can be effectively framed with class warfare.
Consider the ideology. The two sides in this fight agree on virtually nothing, including the very notion of whether it is a good thing to avoid the fiscal cliff (Howard Dean, among other Democrats, has said we should go over the cliff). Start with the basics: Democrats say that higher tax rates on the rich will be required in any deal. It’s non-negotiable. The GOP says it will fight tooth-and-nail against higher rates. Most Democrats are salivating at the prospect of cutting defense spending. Republicans say they will fight to the death to avoid the automatic defense cuts in the sequestration. Democrats will do everything to protect their cash cow and vote magnet, entitlements, from reform. The GOP says restructuring Medicare, and its tens of trillions in unfunded liabilties, is vital.
Consider the motives. Since defense cuts and higher taxes on the rich (and everyone else, if they can get away with it) are essentially the only two issues that matter to Obama and his leftist cohorts, what motivation does Obama have to negotiate when massive defense cuts and higher taxes across the board will already happen automatically on January 1 without anyone lifting a finger? And the president’s incentive to negotiate is reduced even further by the likelihood the GOP will be blamed for going over the cliff and forcing higher taxes on the middle class anyway.
Consider the posturing. The only offer on the table from the Democrats, brought forth by Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, not only fails to lay the groundwork for compromise or an eventual deal – it is a joke. The proposal includes minimal spending cuts, but incredibly, proposes new stimulus spending. It would double the $800 billion in tax increases Obama had consistently called for, proposing $1.6 trillion in new taxes. And in the coup de gras, it would effectively grant this president unlimited authority to raise the debt ceiling as much as he likes whenever he likes. Wow.
The Republican response has been to deride the proposal and offer…nothing as best we can tell, other than the closing of unnamed tax loopholes and deductions in lieu of raising tax rates. Where is a clear, forthright and bold proposal based on constitutional principles from the GOP? How about just a coherent alternative that actually frames their ideological argument with something more than protecting the rich from higher taxes? It’s hard to know which is worse – that framing the debate around than the protection of tax rates for the rich absent further explanation is so unbelievably tone-deaf, or that the GOP leadership fails to grasp this obvious reality.
And consider history. From the government shutdown in 1995 that led to Bill Clinton’s re-election a year later, to the pathetic debt ceiling negotiations in the summer of 2011 that brought congressional approval numbers down to single digits, the GOP always seems to get rolled in these showdowns. Nothing that has yet happened and none of the realities on the ground suggest the outcome will be any different this time.
Now, if you’re annoyed by the analysis of this as simply a political game being played while a recession almost certainly will result from going over this cliff, you’re not alone. But the reality is that this IS a political game. Forget about the notion of compromise for the good of the nation. Those days are past. Ideological polarization is at its height, and will stay there until at least 1/21/17. And the bottom line is that the Republicans have almost no leverage.
Oh sure, the president will make it look like he’s negotiating. He’ll put on just enough of a show for the, um, low-information voters, not that he any longer really cares what they think anyway. But the fact is, this may well be Barack Obama’s moment of truth. His best hope to consolidate his transformation of America from a constitutional republic to a social democracy, and stick it in the face of the opponents who have so bitterly opposed him. Don’t expect him to squander this opportunity by compromising with a foe and an ideology he has locked in a stranglehold and is determined to destroy.