The World Didn’t End, But It Got Colder For Republicans

I held off on posting today just in case the world might end, but since it looks like we will all be here tomorrow, here are some thoughts on the House’s failure to pass Speaker Boehner’s Plan B last night, and why I think that failure was a setback, if not a disaster, for the GOP.

Let’s start with a dose of reality. Over the next few years, taxes are going up and spending is going “down,” i.e., not increasing as fast as it might in a liberal fantasy. That is what the “fiscal cliff” does, and what will emerge from Congress some time in the next six months will be fiscal cliff lite: higher taxes and somewhat moderated spending, both to a lesser degree than the supposedly draconian “cliff” would entail. That isn’t what either party wants, but it is what we are going to get, because the voters chose to elect a divided government.

So what is the point of the secret negotiations, leaks, press conferences, op-eds, emails that rally the faithful, etc., that are now going on? It is all posturing, designed to put one party or the other in a stronger bargaining position over the coming weeks. So far, that maneuvering has overwhelmingly favored President Obama and the Democrats. You could say that the Democrats are winning the public relations battle, except that the Republicans aren’t even fighting. They have a good case, if they wanted to make it–higher taxes are always more or less unpopular, and polls indicate that most voters would rather see spending cuts than more taxes. This is an easy position for the Republicans to stake out, but they haven’t done it in any systematic way. The average low-information voter has no idea what Republicans want with respect to taxes, spending, and the budget, and therefore is quite ready to believe Barack Obama’s absurd lie that Republicans are just trying to protect rich people. Not that there is anything wrong with protecting rich people from the predations of thieves operating under color of government authority.

As I have been saying for a long time, Republicans need to stop bargaining behind closed doors and pass something. They need to pass a budget/spending package/tax proposal that sums up where they want the country to go, fiscally speaking. That was, I assume, the idea behind Boehner’s Plan B: Boehner wanted to show voters what Republicans are for. If the House passes a fiscal plan, Republicans can say, “Your turn, Harry,” and pass the ball to the Senate. We all know how desperate Harry Reid and Senate Democrats are to avoid tipping the voters off to what their real plans are. That is why the Democrats haven’t allowed a budget to be passed for more than three years. So, why shouldn’t the Republicans dramatize this fact by enacting a fiscal program and challenging Reid to put it to a vote in the Senate?

So Boehner was on the right track with Plan B, the content of which was, in my view, relatively insignificant, as long as it embodied basic Republican principles of lower taxes and less spending. Apparently Boehner failed because Republican representatives didn’t want to vote to raise taxes on incomes over $1 million per year. If that is correct, it reflects a failure of political understanding on the part of many Republicans, including our good friend Hugh Hewitt, who I think played an influential role in this debate. Taxes on top earners are going to rise. In the present climate, and given the results of last month’s election, that is a given. Whether the Republican House “gets” anything in exchange for agreeing to higher taxes on incomes over $1 million is not the point. The point is that voters need to see what the GOP is for. The party needs to stake out a clear, simple position to the effect that the budget should be brought into balance by spending restraint, not through higher taxes on everyone, which is what it would take if we tried to balance the budget with higher revenue.

Given Boehner’s failure on last night’s vote, the Republicans are back to square one. But the imperative remains the same: the Republican House needs to take a position–through legislation, not press conferences. If Plan B can pass the House without the tax increase for high incomes, it should do so. If something else can get a majority of votes in that chamber, fine. But the legislation that Boehner proposes needs to be simple and clear so that low-information voters–who, as we were reminded last month, are in the majority–understand what the party stands for.

The Republicans’ failure to put a clear proposal before the voters allows Barack Obama to continue demagoguing the fiscal crisis, an obvious consequence that should have been foreseen by every House Republican who opposed Boehner’s Plan B. Tonight Senator Jeff Sessions responded to President Obama’s speech. This is part of what Sessions said:

President Obama today gave yet another speech about the fiscal cliff. No plan, nothing that can be scored or analyzed, just another speech. If President Obama wishes to avoid the fiscal cliff then he, with all the power and influence he holds as the leader of this nation, must submit to Congress – in legislative form – a plan that he believes can pass both chambers of Congress with bipartisan support. No more secret meetings and pointless press conferences. Certainly this is not too much to ask. So we await his action: will he move from an unscorable speech to scorable legislation? If he is unwilling to submit such a plan then we may be left with only one persuasive conclusion: that he has used two years of secret meetings with Republican leaders not as an opportunity to achieve fiscal reform, but as a political exercise to defeat his opposition and preserve the expansion of federal spending.

I think it is obvious that this is exactly what Obama has been doing. He has no intention of presenting a coherent fiscal plan, and will not be forced to do so as long as the Republicans play his game of back-room negotiations and dueling press conferences. The only way the Republicans can call Obama’s bluff is by bringing the budget into the light of day, by passing a fiscal plan in the House that Republicans can stand behind. Boehner was right to proceed in this direction, and it is unfortunate–I hope it will not prove to be tragic–that his own caucus was not willing to follow.

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