Political Animal


December 11, 2012 3:23 PM Remembering Who You Are Dealing With

By Ed Kilgore

At TNR, Noam Scheiber objects to the widespread assumption that allowing a plunge over the “fiscal cliff” would be a tactical victory but a strategic defeat for Barack Obama. Yes, he concedes, there is some risk of economic repercussions if a comprehensive deal fails too emerge soon after January 1. But that’s not the big problem:

The biggest threat to Barack Obama’s second-term agenda isn’t the economy. It’s the mania that has yet to loosen its grip on congressional Republicans, even after they lost seats in both houses and watched Obama roll to a comfortable re-election. To see this, look no further than the party’s internal discussions over its own fiscal-cliff positioning. The current debate within the GOP is between those who see that Obama has all the leverage in this particular episode and urge a quick deal on tax rates so the party can regroup for a bigger victory on entitlements, and those who still refuse to budge in any way on tax rates. Which is to say, it’s a debate between the moderately delusional and the utterly, irreconcilably delusional.

Even the “reasonable” Republicans who are willing to consider tax rate increases prior to January 1 do not seem willing to give up a second, bigger fight over the debt limit. And the need to make that an apocalyptic fight that could do more more damage to the economy than going over the “fiscal cliff” will only get more urgent as Republicans opposed to any real compromise exercise their prerogative to throw conniption fits about the gutless RINOs in charge of negotiations.

The only way the party leadership will be able to appease these holdouts is by promising all-out war on the rest of the president’s priorities, beginning with demands for massive spending cuts when the debt-ceiling has to be raised next year. The Republicans “will give way … but seething,” Josh Marshall has written. “The right of the party will not accept anything less than another debt-ceiling hostage drama.” If Obama somehow manages to survive that fight, then they will simply seize on the next opportunity to defeat him (like the March 2013 budget vote that will be necessary to keep the government running), or the next one after that.

The only way out of this conundrum for Obama, argues Scheiber, is to avoid a pre-January 1 deal:

[T]he real key here is the political upshot of going over the cliff: Republicans will see in defeat that it’s not Obama who has somehow pulled one over on their leadership or simply played his hand better. Instead, they will see that they have been completely repudiated by the public in a way that even the election didn’t impress on them. It will, in other words, be as close as you get in politics to a total victory for one side. It will highlight the perils of following one’s base too slavishly, a lesson that will come in handy not just on future fiscal policy fights (there will in all likelihood still be a debt ceiling to raise next year), but, one can imagine, also on an issue like immigration. Which is to say, it’s only by forcing the GOP off the cliff that Obama will find the space he needs to govern.

Now I’m skeptical of any strategy that depends on convincing conservatives they need to be more reasonable. Big elements of “the base,” after all, believe their agenda is the only way to restore constitutional government, and/or to obey the Will of God. But Scheiber’s right that “winning” a deal that just postpones the economy-threatening confrontation until the debt limit vote or some other near pressure-point doesn’t accomplish a lot. At least “fiscal cliff-diving” will put into place a status quo—particularly if you assume Republicans won’t stand in the way of a post-January 1 tax cut for the middle-class—much closer to Obama’s own agenda than he’s likely to get in any negotiations. And who knows? Perhaps heading towards the New Year in a tough stance will convince the GOP’s “wealth-creating” masters that a deal that doesn’t include a debt limit increase is one not worth having at all.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • BillFromPA on December 11, 2012 3:41 PM:

    Quote: 'Instead, they will see that they have been completely repudiated by the public in a way that even the election didnít impress on them.'

    Couldn't agree more, just sit tight, ride the barrel over the falls and the repugs end up having to pass tax cuts for the 99% only, negotiating the defense cuts from a weak position and in no position to credibly threaten the debt ceiling hostage-taking.

  • T2 on December 11, 2012 3:45 PM:

    Scheiber is right, GOPers simply failed to understand how far out their positions are compared to the general public. They have created a sideshow theatre, where most American's just watch the stupid clown act as an amusing pastime, then get on with their lives.
    Going over the fiscal cliff may serve as their "cold turkey", but I doubt it. I've seen little evidence to support that. If Obama were to cave on each and every point, they would still fight him tooth and nail for four more years. Because that's what they do. They aren't there to govern. Let's do the Cliff. But remember, just like when you were a little kid, if you jump off something and don't get hurt, you'll just do it again. No soft landing for the GOP this time.

  • c u n d gulag on December 11, 2012 3:49 PM:

    So, Republicans are faced with either an endless series of taking the country and its economy hostage for the next 2 to 4 years, or come to its senses, and cut-bait with the loonier members of its base, and agree to compromise with President Obama and the Democrats.

    After over 4 years of painting Obama as the Dark Lord, Satan, himself, and the Democrats as his willing incubi and sucubi, and themselves as the sole defenders of Jesus, the Founding Fathers, and the Constitution, does anyone see the Republicans pissing-off their rabid, clinically insane, base?

    Yeah, me neither...

    Just watch the Seniorita Senator from South Carolina, Limpseed Grahamcrackers, and his behavior recently. He's worried that his nativist natives in SC will get restless, and opt for someone who's even more of a loopy, knuckle-dragging, mouth-breathing, moron, than Ol' Limpseed himself.

    So, grab some popcorn, settle down, and watch as the Republicans try to juggle flaming chainsaws while trying to walk a tightrope over the Niagra Falls on a windy day, that will be public opinion if regular folks taxes go up again, and they again try to lower the countries credit rating - and all while the Plutocrats and Oligarchs are also screaming at them.

  • jjm on December 11, 2012 3:52 PM:

    Nestled inside their money cocoon, the GOP cannot begin to deal with hard, cold reality.

    But that cocoon is slowly but surely being unraveled by Obama and the Democrats before it can emerge from its larval stage. It's over for you guys who only address the desires of demented billionaires. OVER!

  • Ronald on December 11, 2012 3:52 PM:

    Scheiber is smoking crack if he thinks the Republican's position is going to change because of the 'fiscal cliff'.

    Just like the rising sea levels, dropping unemployment, and Nate Silver's poll analysis, if the 'facts' are in conflict with their worldview, then they're simply ignored.

    Until the Rs recognize it is their basic plan, their basic ideas, that are at fault, all the political grandstanding in the world won't make a bit of difference to them.

  • sjw on December 11, 2012 4:24 PM:

    My advice for Obama: pretend to negotiate seriously, move goalposts as necessary, and take us over the cliff. (P.S. Make sure to come up with a good plan to whomp the Republicans on the debt ceiling issue as well, because they will obviously be playing that Joker card come January.)

  • Doug on December 11, 2012 4:28 PM:

    Ronald, the only Republicans that need to recognize the danger the fiscal speed-bump represents to the GOP are the 116 Republican members of the House Boehner needs to hang onto so he can remain Speaker.

  • Altoid on December 11, 2012 4:59 PM:

    Color me skeptical about Obama gaining any real leverage on the crazies. The true believers are, well, true believers. Put yourself in their place. You'd believe that 1) Obama is the Dark Lord etc (props c u) and 2) *not only* that everybody who voted for him, *but also* everybody who didn't treat him like the very soul of the antichrist, just isn't a real American. Would you change your mind just because people outside your district are calling you names? Not hardly. It would only confirm your belief that "real America" is doomed unless you *really* get serious about attacking him.

    No matter what deals are cut or how things actually pan out, my one clearest view is that the crazies haven't yet begun to go crazy. I'm tempted to think the gop moneybags might have some leverage on them, but any pressure they bring to bear is just as likely to convince the crazies that even the moneybags can't be trusted.

    The only way out that I can see is for Boehner to rely on a de facto coalition of the relatively-sane gop members and Democrats. He might get booted out if he does, but anyone who follows him will be in exactly the same pickle. The senate isn't the only dysfunctional body in the Capitol these days.

  • bigtuna on December 11, 2012 5:45 PM:

    Altoid - doesn't it come down to the numbers? We are where we were last year:

    The equation is to get to a deal:

    217 = [# of Dems who vote for a deal] + ["sane" repubs] - teaparty nutjobs - lib dems.

    At some point someone will count noses. How many repubs are left with a clue? How many liberal dems will not vote for big cuts? It seems like the negotations need to be with Boner and Nancy P. In the current house, it seems like Boner needs about 30-35 Rs to stay with him, if 8-15 dems do not buy the final deal. With the new session, there would need to be about 25-30 Rs, if 10 ish Dems don't vote for it.

    btw, I have been watchting the West Wing re-runs. Amazing how they discuss issues in the show that are being discussed today.

  • James M on December 11, 2012 8:42 PM:

    It seems increasingly clear that the elephant in the room here is the coming debt ceiling negotiations. From what I have read and heard so far, I am beginning to think that BO actually will have more leverage in preventing another debt ceiling fiasco if he goes off the 'cliff'

    I am not the first person to suggest this, but what the House GOPers are essentially doing is staging a low-level Coup d' etat: even though they are the out-of-power minority, give them control of the government or they will wreck the national economy. The President can not govern under these circumstances and he must not let this dynamic crystallize. Go over the cliff and even accept another downgrade of the U.S.' credit rating if necessary.

    The 'no negotiation with terrorists' strategy does have a lot going for it. When was the last time you heard of Russian nationals being kidnapped or taken hostage (with the exception of the theater takeover)? Terrorists leave Russians (and previously the citizens of the former Soviet Union) alone because they know that:

    1. The Russians will not negotiate
    2. They are willing to sacrifice the hostages
    3. They will come after the perpetrators, their families, and their dogs, cats and other assorted pets with everything they have.

    Lots of pain and no gain. If BO wants to accomplish anything in his 2nd term he had better channel his inner Cossack!

  • Altoid on December 11, 2012 10:09 PM:

    bigtuna-- It's a numbers game all right. The problem Boehner has and that's dogged his entire speakership, it seems to me, is that the nuts now make up something like 30 or 35 of his members. That's enough that he can't pass anything just on gop votes unless they agree to it. But, as has been explained to me, ever since Gingrich that's the way the gopers have wanted to run the House, and it's the big reason the nuts have had their effective veto on policy votes. That 30 or 35 nuts is also a big enough number to boot him out of the speakership when the gop caucus votes in January. Or anytime Cantor or somebody is ready to try a coup.

    The absolute surest way for him to get tossed would be to actually deal with Pelosi, it seems to me. Any whiff of that, or even of counting on Democratic votes, and he'd be out in a New York minute. So a de facto coalition of the sane would have to be very arms'-length and appear accidental. Which may be the point of all his bluster-- the teapers then wouldn't be voting against anything he worked out but against the high-handedness of Obama, which for them is everything just and right and natural and true, and makes perfect sense besides. If they stayed mad enough at Obama they might not figure out that Boehner was actually relying on Dems.

    Of course, he *could* do the right thing by the country and work out a majority among all 435 duly elected representatives of the people who sit in his House. It *would* be the right thing, but he'd never be addressed as "Mr. Speaker" again. Tough choice. Seems to me he'd rather be sneaky, but then again maybe he'll surprise us.