The Optimism of Fools

That Boehner Speech: Dragons Last Forever, But No So Little Speakers

11.08.12 3:34 PM ET

Washington is a predictable place. The establishment in this town is so desperate for any signs of bipartisanship. i go to all these functions around town, panels about the fiscal cliff. The moderator says to the old Washington hand, are you really confident about their ability to deal? And the old Washington hand knows very well that it's a near impossibility, but he or she says yes, I am an optimist, and I believe that surely they'll all see the stakes and finally come reason together. These are the kinds of more or less benign official lies by which an establishment holds itself together.

This brings me to John Boehner's speech yesterday. I saw The Washington Post's front page this morning, something about Boehner opening the door to a deal. To my ear, he did no such thing. He softened the rhetoric here and there, but if you decode his substantive words, he said nothing new.

He said he could support new revenues. But not higher tax rates. Explicitly not. So, if you're explicitly not going to raise tax rates, you might ask, how are you going to get higher revenues? Well, Puff the Magic Dragon and Little Jackie Paper are going to venture off to the Land of Honalee and by golly gumdrops, they're just not going to come back until they've found those cursed new revenues.

What I'm saying is, Boehner's proposal is that new revenues will emerge from the "growth" that's going to happen after taxes are cut. So his message to Obama yesterday was: Okay, you spare the Pentagon those drastic cuts, and you give us something on entitlements, and in return, we'll agree to give you lower tax rates! How's that for a deal?

Chuck Schumer, as usual, has it right:

"Part of his speech he talked about dynamic scoring, this idea if you cut taxes you increase revenues,” Schumer said. 

“It’s about time we debunked that myth, it’s a Rumpelstiltskin fairy tale, dynamic scoring. You may remember Rumpelstiltskin was the fairy tale figure who turned straw into gold."

Now, in other places, Schumer did praise Boehner for adopting a softer tone, and added:

“You can’t expect the Speaker to turn on a dime in 24 hours and embrace everything, higher taxes, higher taxes on the wealthy, but I think privately that he’s seen the handwriting on the wall and it makes me very hopeful that we can do something big in the next month and a half. It’s a good first step,” he said.

So we shall see. I'd like to be a glass half full kind of person. But Boehner made no meaningful gesture here. And he is denying the reality of the election result. Barack Obama won a decisive election. Nearly every important swing state, most of them by handy margins. In exit polls, 60 percent of voters said they supported raising taxes on the better off. In her TNR column today, Neera Tanden writes, absolutely correctly, that the results were a mandate for tax fairness:

No issue was more litigated in the debates, in the ads, and on the stump. In his closing ad, the President pledged to “ask the wealthy to pay a little more.” And rather than merely defending his tax plan, President Obama went on offense, using his closing argument tour  to make the case that the wealthy should contribute more so that we can “reduce the deficit and still make investments in things like education and training, and science and research.”

The people knew very well that Barack Obama wanted higher taxes on better-off Americans, and they voted for him by a not overwhelming but comfortable margin. Boehner knows this. But he knows he doesn't have the votes to remain speaker if he acts like Barack Obama is a human being and the president of the United States. That's the problem. The House GOP caucus.

As August Bebel might have said if he were watching all this, bipartisanship is the optimism of fools.