Remembering Who You Are Dealing With

At TNR, Noam Scheiber objects to the widespread assumption that allowing a plunge over the “fiscal cliff” would be a tactical victory but a strategic defeat for Barack Obama. Yes, he concedes, there is some risk of economic repercussions if a comprehensive deal fails too emerge soon after January 1. But that’s not the big problem:

The biggest threat to Barack Obama’s second-term agenda isn’t the economy. It’s the mania that has yet to loosen its grip on congressional Republicans, even after they lost seats in both houses and watched Obama roll to a comfortable re-election. To see this, look no further than the party’s internal discussions over its own fiscal-cliff positioning. The current debate within the GOP is between those who see that Obama has all the leverage in this particular episode and urge a quick deal on tax rates so the party can regroup for a bigger victory on entitlements, and those who still refuse to budge in any way on tax rates. Which is to say, it’s a debate between the moderately delusional and the utterly, irreconcilably delusional.

Even the “reasonable” Republicans who are willing to consider tax rate increases prior to January 1 do not seem willing to give up a second, bigger fight over the debt limit. And the need to make that an apocalyptic fight that could do more more damage to the economy than going over the “fiscal cliff” will only get more urgent as Republicans opposed to any real compromise exercise their prerogative to throw conniption fits about the gutless RINOs in charge of negotiations.

The only way the party leadership will be able to appease these holdouts is by promising all-out war on the rest of the president’s priorities, beginning with demands for massive spending cuts when the debt-ceiling has to be raised next year. The Republicans “will give way … but seething,” Josh Marshall has written. “The right of the party will not accept anything less than another debt-ceiling hostage drama.” If Obama somehow manages to survive that fight, then they will simply seize on the next opportunity to defeat him (like the March 2013 budget vote that will be necessary to keep the government running), or the next one after that.

The only way out of this conundrum for Obama, argues Scheiber, is to avoid a pre-January 1 deal:

[T]he real key here is the political upshot of going over the cliff: Republicans will see in defeat that it’s not Obama who has somehow pulled one over on their leadership or simply played his hand better. Instead, they will see that they have been completely repudiated by the public in a way that even the election didn’t impress on them. It will, in other words, be as close as you get in politics to a total victory for one side. It will highlight the perils of following one’s base too slavishly, a lesson that will come in handy not just on future fiscal policy fights (there will in all likelihood still be a debt ceiling to raise next year), but, one can imagine, also on an issue like immigration. Which is to say, it’s only by forcing the GOP off the cliff that Obama will find the space he needs to govern.

Now I’m skeptical of any strategy that depends on convincing conservatives they need to be more reasonable. Big elements of “the base,” after all, believe their agenda is the only way to restore constitutional government, and/or to obey the Will of God. But Scheiber’s right that “winning” a deal that just postpones the economy-threatening confrontation until the debt limit vote or some other near pressure-point doesn’t accomplish a lot. At least “fiscal cliff-diving” will put into place a status quo–particularly if you assume Republicans won’t stand in the way of a post-January 1 tax cut for the middle-class–much closer to Obama’s own agenda than he’s likely to get in any negotiations. And who knows? Perhaps heading towards the New Year in a tough stance will convince the GOP’s “wealth-creating” masters that a deal that doesn’t include a debt limit increase is one not worth having at all.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.