Day 26

On the Fiscal Cliff, Republicans Got Nothin’

Daniel Gross on the GOP’s astounding lack of a counteroffer to the Dems.

Adrenaline-filled, aggressive combatants paraded around on national television and started trash-talking, aiming to intimidate their opponents and get inside their heads. Oh, and the National Football League also played some games.

Sunday, Dec. 2, was Day 26 of the fiscal cliff hostage situation. And the Democrats, who gained an immense advantage in the negotiations over future tax rates by virtue of their victories in the election, seem, finally, to be developing some swagger. Their tone toward the Republicans has become somewhat patronizing. First, there was President Obama’s mid-week invitation of Mitt Romney to lunch at the White House, which was simultaneously magnanimous and a pretty naked power move. Romney couldn’t refuse to come without looking like an extremely sore loser. The single photo released, which quickly went viral, showed Obama giving Romney the kind of good-try handshake that coaches deliver to their opponents after a thorough spanking.

In the past, the modus operandi from the White House on tax and spending issues was a tone poem of tortured frustration, self-criticism, and bargaining. They’d make a middle-of-the-road proposal and then very quickly move off it, failing to appease Republicans and demoralizing the base. But this time is different. Now, the Republicans are compromising and demoralizing their base. The Obama White House is largely standing back and watching with glee as congressmen line up to abandon Grover Norquist’s no-tax pledge. (My personal favorite is Rep. Chris Gibson of New York, who said his pledge doesn’t count anymore because, thanks to redrawing of the map, he now represents a different district.) Republicans have generally conceded that a deal will have to include more revenue, but insist now that new revenue arises solely from closing loopholes and capping deductions.

The Democrats are essentially pocketing the Republicans’ capitulation on revenue and asking for much more—they’ve adopted the old GOP strategy of simply repeating their desires as a method of bargaining. The first proposal, which Obama offered late last week, asked for lots of tax increases, plus some stimulus measures, and offered close to nothing on entitlements. Its chief plank was for marginal rates on high incomes to rise. And this time, the Democrats are confident that the Republicans’ cave on revenue is just the beginning. “I don’t think Republicans are willing to shut down the government over 2 percent of the country,” said top economic aide Jason Furman at an on-the-record briefing last week.

The psychological warfare can also be seen in the patronizing tone Democratic officials are now taking toward the Republicans. The Republican leaders, who used to throw terror into Democrats, are now objects of pity. There was Sen. Claire McCaskill, fresh after dispatching Tea Party loon Todd Akin, on Meet the Press. “I feel almost sorry for John Boehner,” McCaskill said. “There is incredible pressure on him from a base of his party that is unreasonable about this. And he’s gotta decide, is his speakership more important, or is the country more important.”

Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner took to the Sunday talk shows, too. For the last several years, Geithner has occupied perhaps the most unenviable position in Washington. He’s been like a quarterback operating behind an offensive lined composed solely of rookies. Time after time, he’s been blitzed—from the right and the left—on the bailouts, aid to the auto industry, and slow movement on mortgage aid. But on Sunday he was the one expressing empathy for poor John Boehner. “They’re in kind of a tough position now,” Geithner said on Fox News Sunday. “They’re trying to figure out how to find a way to support things that they know they’re gonna have to do. That’s going to be hard for them.” (Note: the very willingness of Geithner to appear on a Fox program is a sign of the administration’s newfound confidence.) Geithner pounded home the Obama administration’s talking point: we’ve put forward our plan. If the Republicans don’t like it, they should put forward their own.

In response, the Republicans countered with an offense that resembled that of the feckless Arizona Cardinals on Sunday. The passes were all over the map and failed to connect. Some key players were fatalistic. Sen. Lindsey Graham and Boehner both conceded that we may well go over the cliff. Others denied they had a role to play. Appearing on ABC’s This Week, Rep. Tom Cole said, “I don’t think we need to put a formal proposal out on the table.” Dan Senor, a Romney foreign policy adviser, proclaimed that Obama’s proposal, the one that caused Mitch McConnell to laugh out loud, and that “flabbergasted” Boehner, was too far to the left.

The reality should be seeping in to viewers of the Sunday shows that the Republicans don’t have a game plan. They don’t have a single, specific proposal to avoid the fiscal cliff. And even if they had one, they don’t have a roadmap to get there. They keep expecting Obama to come back with something more to their liking, which they’d also reject. Many Republicans literally don’t understand what is happening. Sen. Charles Grassley tweeted over the weekend that he was frustrated that President Obama hadn’t embraced the recommendation of the Bowles-Simpson Commission. Apparently, he is one of the many people in Washington who doesn’t understand that Bowles-Simpson recommended letting the Bush tax rates on the wealthy expire, while also proposing to cap or eliminate deductions primarily enjoyed by the wealthy.

Above all, the Republicans have yet to grasp that the field is tilted against them. Republicans have every reason to expect, based on their scouting of past Obama performances, that he will start moving toward them and then, essentially, bargain with himself. But now he doesn’t have to. Right now, the policy choice isn’t between an Obama proposal the Republicans abhor and a preferred Republican proposal. No, the choice is between an Obama proposal the Republicans abhor and the fiscal cliff, which Republicans would like even less and the Democrats could live with for a while.

The Republicans are losing, and time is running out. But instead of putting the quarterback on the field and rolling out an aggressive two-minute drill, they seem to be preparing to punt.