Whose votes do Republicans want more: Tea Partiers’ or Independents’?

Posted on July 22, 2011

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Cantor vs. Boehner: who's in charge?

Nearly two weeks ago, Barack Obama came to the negotiating table expressing his hopes to pass a $4 trillion debt reduction bill linked to an increase in the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling.  Obama proposed a package consisting of a 3:1 ratio of spending cuts to revenue increases ($3 trillion in cuts, $1 trillion in new revenues over the next 12 years).  The president said that his plan would include cuts to the major entitlement programs burdening the budget, including Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.  For some Democratic congressmen, supporting Obama’s epic compromise was a bridge too far, citing the fact that Republicans only possessed control of one chamber of Congress and therefore did not deserve to have their demands met so thoroughly.  The president proposed, in terms of revenues, that the tax code be streamlined, loopholes be closed, and tax rates  go up on wealthier Americans.  The Republicans responded to Mr. Obama’s olive branch by walking out of the meeting, claiming that any tax hikes in this dismal economy would be unacceptable.

David Brooks and Ross Douthat of the New York Times editorial page, along with many other conservative journalists and pundits, questioned the fierce stubbornness of the Republican party.  After trouncing the Democrats in the 2010 midterms, controlling the deficit debate in Washington for two years, convincing the majority of Americans that fiscal austerity was the prudent path, even in a recession, and somehow bringing a Democratic president of the United States to agree that reforming entitlement spending was a vital national interest, why did the Republicans choose to back out right when they appeared to be on the brink of a landmark victory?

Some point to the Republican anti-taxation dogma that, since the demise of George H.W. Bush’s presidency, has slowly taken over as the party’s guiding ideology.  Grover Norquist has succeeded in getting 41 Republican Senators and 236 Republican House members to sign a pledge (written by Norquist himself) to never vote to raise taxes while in office.  Either because of this pledge or because of pure ideological rigor, the argument goes, Republicans have become convinced that any tax increase on the American people, regardless of income, would damage the economic recovery to an irreparable extent (perhaps to an even greater extent than the U.S. defaulting on its treasury bonds).

This theory explaining the Republican party’s motives is certainly a plausible one.  After all, it was the Republicans themselves who said they walked out of the debt reduction discussions due to Obama’s proposal to raise taxes.  However, conservative pundits and Republican politicians are making another argument that sounds like superficial tripe to liberal ears, but at its core is actually the main reason why efforts to negotiate have proved so fruitless.

Republicans of all stripes, from Tea Party to corporate, have stated over and over that Obama does not have a plan.  This sounds absurd and at the very least completely hypocritical.  First of all, didn’t Obama clearly lay out his plan of trimming $4 trillion from the national debt with spending cuts outnumbering revenue increases by 3:1?  Didn’t he clearly state that all entitlement spending was on the table?  Yes, the Republicans say, but he didn’t outline these cuts specifically.  But this claim is duplicitous, because the Republican “Cut, Cap, and Balance” bill, which passed through the House of Representatives two days ago, is little more than a single piece of paper that fails to outline specific cuts as well.  What’s going on here?

Per usual, Joe Scarborough has been able to sum up the Republican position best.  On his show, “Morning Joe”, after fuming about Mitch McConnell proposing to separate the debt ceiling and the budget talks into two separate votes, Mr. Scarborough expressed that tying the debt ceiling increase to a grand debt reduction bargain was a perfect strategy for Republicans.  However, he agreed with those in the GOP who were ostensibly suspicious of Obama’s $4 trillion proposal.  Harkening back to the looming government shutdown and budget negotiations for FY 2011 that ended in a supposed $38 billion being cut from the annual budget, he recounted how $38 billion quickly turned into a cut of just $350 million after the CBO scored the passed budget.  It had turned out that part of the $38 billion consisted of savings on a series of projects that had already come in under budget for that year (in other words, money that wasn’t going to be spent anyway).  Also, another 20-25 billion dollars of the total was not actually cut from this year’s budget but rather from government expenditures in future years.  In fact, it turned out that government spending had ultimately gone up for the year, because defense spending had increased by a larger margin than discretionary spending decreased.  Joe thought the president might be attempting to dupe the Republicans into passing a bill that enacted higher taxes while coming up with $3 trillion in cuts through accounting tricks without actually reforming America’s entitlement programs.  Of course, if representatives were to read the bill before voting for it, this wouldn’t be a concern, but that may be asking too much of elected officials.

Both sides have reason to be wary of each other’s proposals.  Republican Tea Party freshmen in particular, considering they were not used to the typical gimmicks and games played in Washington D.C., may have been shellshocked by the apparent fraudulence of the process.  After all, they went to Washington with a “mandate” from the people to “change the way Washington worked” (remember when Obama promised that?) and neither they nor their outside-the-beltway constituents were happy upon realizing they had immediately become part of the gimmickry.  Now, they may be once bitten and twice shy in negotiating on the debt reduction package.  Meanwhile, Democrats have good reason to be circumspect of Republican proposals as well.  After all, since taking over the House of Representatives last November, Republicans have done little to actually govern other than put forth meaningless pieces of paper for symbolic votes on the House floor (such as the “Repeal the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act”).

It is certainly very difficult to project possible numbers associated with either Obama’s plan or the Republicans’ plan.  Not only is the use of accounting tricks and other smokescreens cause for concern regarding spending cuts, but even the numbers on revenue increases are rather nebulous.  Certain Republicans have expressed that $1 trillion can be found by simply streamlining the tax code, closing loopholes, and keeping rates where they are.  Meanwhile, Obama has proposed a similar $1 trillion increase in revenues that includes similar reformation of the tax code, but his plan would no doubt also include letting the Bush tax cuts expire in 2012.  Which $1 trillion is more honest?  Would a Democratic $1 trillion in revenues actually be more than a Republican $1 trillion?  Would a Republican $3 trillion in proposed spending cuts in reality be more than Obama’s $3 trillion in spending cuts?  What is really getting cut anyway?  Why does the argument always stop here?

The Republicans’ decision to walk out of the meeting with Obama two weeks ago was not only poor strategy in terms of achieving their most preferable policy outcome, it was also bad politics.  What if Eric Cantor, instead of pressuring John Boehner to be as stubborn as possible on tax hikes, had said, “Okay Mr. President, this is an interesting plan, please outline exactly how you plan to cut spending by $3 trillion over the next 12 years?”  From here, the Republicans would have been in a win-win situation.  If Obama came out talking about real, significant cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security that would have actually curbed the national debt, it would have likely splintered the Democratic party and it would have likely been exactly what the Tea Partiers had been calling for in terms of spending cuts.  If it was just a slew of accounting tricks deemed insignificant by the CBO, the Republicans could have trotted those facts out to the public claiming that the president was just another sneaky liberal trying to get away with continuing to expand the federal government.  Either way, the Republicans would have been in a better position than they are today if they had just pressed Obama a little further.

It is hard to imagine Republicans failing to envision this quite possible, rather favorable scenario.  Which is why it is becoming more and more clear that the Republican party is less focused on cutting a deal that achieves real debt reduction than they are on pleasing the Tea Party.

Are Republicans really so afraid of exasperating their Tea Party base that they would give up on a chance to claim an easy political victory just because taxes might go up as a result?  Think about it.  The Tea Party is the reason the Republicans own the House of Representatives, the reason why there is no public option in Obamacare, and the reason the president is talking about a $4 trillion deficit reduction package in the first place.  The movement is so strong that it is probably safe to say that the Republican party needs the movement more than the movement needs the Republican party.  If establishment Republicans were to vote for raising taxes while the Tea Party backbenchers comfortably voted “nay”, we could see myriad Republican incumbents get thrown out of office in their party primaries, not to mention the potential rise of a legitimate third party candidate (Bachmann?) that would steal votes from Mitt Romney a la Perot from H.W. in ’92.

Establishment Republicans could strike an historic grand bargain on deficit reduction with Democrats or at the very least push Obama to reveal his plan, but why risk looking like they would negotiate with the enemy?  It was their plan all along: Republicans believe it is more politically prudent to keep in stride with the Tea Party extremists, make the Democrats look unwilling to deal with so-called “reality” (namely, the “reality” that raising taxes would destroy the economy), and accept a smaller deficit reduction package (along with saving the country fiscally by raising the debt ceiling) as a consequence.

According to polls, the American people view the Republicans as unwilling to deal and the party that would be most to blame for a financial collapse in the event of a U.S. default.  Of course, the 20% of the country that is pleased with the Republicans’ handling of the situation is likely made up mostly if not totally of Tea Partiers.  Perhaps the Republicans are just fine with this.  They seem to be more intent on keeping the Tea Party vote for the sake of maintaining a united right-wing than winning over the independents they will need to win the 2012 election.  Of course, a party that ignores independents may do fine in midterm congressional elections, but such a strategy has never proved successful in a capturing the presidency.

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