Over the weekend I was mulling both of our crises, the political one (dysfunction, paralysis) and the policy one (looming tax-mageddon, sequestration). Yep, I mull these things on Saturdays. How, I wondered for the 486th time, can Obama get the Republicans to dig their heels out of the mud and get the upper hand politically while also doing some good for the country? Here’s how.
Obama should go to Congress and say: “I offer you the following deal. I will extend all the Bush tax cuts for one year—yes, even for the wealthiest Americans. One year. In exchange, I’d like you to agree to fund the initial, startup $10 billion for the Kerry-Hutchison infrastructure bank, and the $35 billion I asked of you last September in direct aid for states and localities to rehire laid-off teachers and first responders. Then, after I am reelected, my administration and I will take the first six months of 2013 to write comprehensive tax reform, and Congress will then have six months to pass it, and we’ll have a new tax structure that we’ve both agreed on.
“The business community complains about uncertainty? This is certainty. The Bush rates will stay in place for one more year. We will give corporations our word that the basic corporate rate will be lowered in our package from the current 35 percent. The top marginal rate on the very highest earners will go up—I will continue to insist on that. But not for a year. The rates on middle- and low-income payers will stay the same or go down slightly. We will look at tax expenditures and loopholes and so on and close the ones that aren’t justified. But businesses will now have no reason to doubt what the tax rates will be next January and will have confidence that we’re going to work something out, if you agree to this very reasonable compromise.”
Obama gives some ground, the Republicans give some ground. Nobody gets everything, but everybody gets something. Isn’t that what compromise is? And the “certainty” point is key—it takes away an argument against private-sector investment and job creation that some in the business world have been making at this moment of record corporate profits.
I’m well aware that liberals may hate this. I’ll get to that. But the politics of this idea seem awfully sound to me. Obama would have the Republicans over a barrel. He will have offered a huge concession on the high-end tax rates, which the media will note. If the Republicans say no, which of course is likely because the infrastructure bank is socialism and no one wants teachers anyway, then it becomes manifestly clear to swing voters that Republicans are the true obstructionists. Voters will get that Obama will have made a major concession here. They’ll see that the GOP fails to respond in kind, and most of them will draw the logical conclusion.
And if the Republicans say yes, then even better: they will have made Obama, at this eleventh hour of his first term, into the bipartisan leader they’ve so successfully prevented him from being. And more important than that, there are the real-world upshots of public investment in infrastructure—a proposal that has the support, by the way, of the left-wing United States Chamber of Commerce—and the rehiring of hundreds of thousands of laid-off workers.
The Republicans will be boxed in. They’ll think up a clever response. They always do. They’ll try to bring in defense spending, perhaps, or insist on two years. They’ll obviously set out immediately on trying to figure out a way to box Obama in and make the Bush rates permanent. They’ll think of nine other things I’m not cynical enough to conjure up. They’ll dismiss it as a gimmick, but I’d wager that Obama can sell the idea that his giving ground on high-income tax rates is serious, not gimmicky. And if Obama stands firm, the lines are simple and clear: “I’m giving up something, and I’m asking you to give up something, for the sake of helping put Americans to work, and of doing the jobs we’re paid to do.”
My idea doesn’t deal directly with budget sequestration, and the huge cuts that are supposed to kick in January 1. Maybe Obama can propose that those be deferred for a while as well. Or maybe he is better off just leaving that to the senators who are allegedly working on it now. It might muddy things up.
Now, liberals. There will be outrage that Obama caved on his one heretofore firm condition on taxes. Under other circumstances, I might be outraged. But these strike me as pretty decent circumstances. Remember, Obama agreed to extend the Bush rates once before, in December 2010, and a fair number of liberals and independent analysts were basically fine with that deal. What did Obama get that time? His own tax cuts, to the payroll tax, and some unemployment insurance extensions. This time, if the GOP actually agreed, he’d be getting far, far more—Republicans agreeing for the first time in the Obama era to real stimulative spending. Liberals should cheer this outcome—just as they should cheer the idea that, unlike during the December 2010 deal or the debt fiasco of last year, Obama would be looking like the guy who set the terms. He’d look strong, not weak, and he’d be very nicely teed up for reelection.
Which is why the Republicans will say no. Though it’ll be worse for the country, it would be great for Obama politically. Mitt Romney, of course, would dismiss Obama’s offer too, so my ploy would bring the added benefit of making Romney look extreme and unreasonable to centrist voters. Obama could then campaign saying that he tried repeatedly to reason with Republicans and was rebuffed at every turn, even when he offered to lower tax rates for millionaires. Romney and the GOP will campaign saying, “We’ll give you the tax cuts without all this spending.” Obama will then have to make the case that spending—investment—has value. But he has to make that case anyway. In my scenario, he can make it in a context in which he can prove to voters that the other party won’t budge one single inch. He’ll finally look like, to resuscitate a phrase we haven’t heard much of in the last two years, the adult in the room.