Fiscal Cliff

11.27.12

Michael Tomasky on How Obama Shouldn’t Back Down Vs. the GOP

Elections are supposed to have consequences. So why does the GOP think it can strong-arm the president into compromising on entitlements without first giving in on taxes?

On the one hand, it’s possible to look at all these Republicans distancing themselves from Grover Norquist and his famous pledge as an encouraging sign that they can read and understand election results. On the other, let’s not get carried away. The “compromise” they are offering is no compromise at all, really. And what they want in return from Democrats—which they are keeping intentionally vague—shows very clearly that they haven’t yet quite accepted the idea that elections have consequences.

It’s nice to see Norquist’s Maginot Line holding about as well as the real one did. It’s been a long time coming. But let’s break down what this really amounts to, because it’s not something to be celebrated in and of itself just yet.

Norquist’s anti-tax position all these years has been so totalizing that he has counted lots of things as tax increases that aren’t explicitly tax increases. You may remember the tiff he got into with Oklahoma GOP Senator Tom Coburn over oil-and-gas subsidies. Coburn, who is retiring, was willing to end those subsidies, which amount to a few billion dollars a year. To Norquist, this was a tax increase on oil companies. I can see the logic in a way, but if you’re going to go down that road, then you are taking loads of policy options off the table.

It’s an extreme definition, and it’s the very fact that it’s an extreme definition that allows Republicans breaking from it to appear to be taking a bold position while they are in fact doing nothing of the sort. Because under the big headlines about Breaking From Grover, the actual news content is that they will consider increased revenue but not increased rates. The vehicle of choice right now seems to be a limit on deductions, of maybe $40,000, which would reduce the amount rich people can deduct and, in effect, raise their taxes and bring in more revenue.

That’s fine as far as it goes. But it’s not enough. Barack Obama ran on raising rates on dollars earned above $250,000 from 35 to 39.6 percent. He said it a thousand times. The other guy said the opposite a thousand times. Obama won a clear victory. It was a victory for raising tax rates, period. But Republicans won’t grant that they lost and their pet position lost. And just you watch—even as they give a little temporary ground on this deduction limit business, they’ll continue to push for Simpson-Bowles-ish lower overall rates in the long term, rates closer to what Mitt Romney was proposing, which were resoundingly rejected on Election Day.

So all in all, that’s a pretty lame olive branch. As I said, it looks semi-reasonable only because the opening position, the position they’ve held for 20 years, was so utterly unreasonable. So that’s what they’re offering. Actually, it’s what a few of them are offering—no sign from Mitch McConnell yet that he’s offering anything like this. But let’s move on from that and now discuss what they want in return, which is even worse.

The party that lost the election—lost the presidency, lost Senate seats, and yes, held on to the House, but lost seats there, too—doesn’t get to dictate terms.

They haven’t really said it, but they want Obama and the Democrats to agree to sizeable cuts in Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Now, here again, we had an election. The stakes could scarcely have been clearer. One side said, basically, we will protect Medicare and Medicaid. The other side said, we will go after them. It was a little more complicated than that, but that was roughly the size of it. The side that said we will protect them won.

So now, having won, the Democrats are supposed to cave in? Sure, they’ll have to play a little ball. That’s politics. But the party that lost the election—lost the presidency, lost Senate seats, and yes, held on to the House, but lost seats there too—doesn’t get to dictate terms.

And most appallingly of all, how in the world is Social Security getting dragged into this? Social Security is the one thing that wasn’t debated at all during the campaign. Even the Ryan Budget didn’t touch Social Security. And now Republicans like Bob Corker of Tennessee think they can come along after an election in which they didn’t even put Social Security on the table and now do so, in such a way that will cut benefits dramatically for people who commit the error of living into their 80s and 90s? Yes, I know: establishment panjandrums want the entitlement “crisis” solved. But does it not strike you as maybe a little odd that only weeks after an election in which both parties vowed not to touch Social Security, they would agree to cut benefits?

Obama will have to give to get. That’s how it goes. But he’d better not forget, and he’d better not let the Republicans forget, that he just won an election in which the American people were given a clear choice—and they made it. Republicans walking away from Norquist deserve a few brownie points for coming back to planet Earth, but that sure doesn’t entitle them to start calling any shots.