Extremism Vindicated Once Again?

The way the whole “fiscal cliff” thing (itself a contrivance based on the Republican view that expiration of the Bush tax cuts and imposition of defense spending cuts would be an apocalyptic development) is being discussed in the MSM is a depressing vindication of the huge strategic advantages of partisan extremism. If you are crazy enough for a while, then agreeing to be slightly less crazy looks statesmanlike.

Mike Tomasky notes this dynamic in the Grand Revolt Against Grover Norquist:

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.

More generally, the “compromise” position of bold, brave GOP “moderates” on the overall shape of a “fiscal solution” is, as Greg Sargent has pointed out, almost identical to that of the Republican presidential candidate who just lost the election.

The remarkable ability of conservatives to drag American politics to the Right by taking extremist positions and then offering to “compromise” by accepting policies deemed conservative the week before last is hardly a new thing; it was the subject of a fine book by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson six years ago. But the MSM keeps taking the bait, which is why we now have Lindsay Graham and Saxbe Chambliss being lionized for making fake concessions to stop America from plunging over a fake “fiscal cliff,” asking only the small concession that the Bush tax cuts, the principal cause of current long-term public debt, be extended forever, and oh, by the way, could we also cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefits? I mean, you have to hand it to them: who else but American conservatives would have the audacity after losing an election to ask for bipartisan cover for their two most important long-term fiscal objectives?

If they have any sense at all, the “extremists” who are being “repudiated” by these brave Republican moderates ought to be cackling with glee.

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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.