How Republicans can use the confrontation to revive their party.
As a potentially toxic combination of steep tax hikes and deep spending cuts draws nearer Republicans are consistently being outmaneuvered by President Obama.
Disillusioned Democratic pollster Patrick Caddell counsels that this wonkish back-and-forth over the finer points of marginal tax rates is not the hill that Republicans should die on.
The GOP doesn't even grasp the underlying political dynamics now in play, he says.
In a nutshell, Republicans need to understand that the real struggle is not with the Obama administration; instead, the real struggle is for American political opinion, including the broad middle that preferred Obama to Romney, but nevertheless feels no great trust or affection for the re-elected 44th President.
Republicans have to grab hold of the narrative and drive home the point that Obama's overreaching is bad for America, something that now-private citizen Mitt Romney refused to do in the recently concluded election cycle.
Caddell believes that an outrageous proposal offered by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner presents a golden opportunity that Republicans have thus far failed to seize.
Geithner brazenly asked Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to ignore the Constitution and give the Executive Branch the ability to raise the national debt ceiling with the stroke of a pen. McConnell reportedly laughed out loud and Boehner afterwards said he was "flabbergasted."
"If this cession of fiscal authority were ever to happen—if Congress were to lose its right to vote 'yea' or 'nay' on debt-limit increases—that would be an epochal political power shift," says Caddell. “It would mean that for the first time in US history, the President would have complete dominance on spending issues. And that’s a kind of dominance that no president should be trusted with, let alone Obama."
Caddell likens the blatantly unconstitutional surrender of congressional spending prerogatives to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's infamous Supreme Court "packing" effort in 1937.
Even though Democrats at the time had vise grip-like control over both houses of Congress, nearly-extinct Republican lawmakers worked with Democrats to kill the authoritarian plan. The resulting popular backlash against FDR led to the GOP's huge comeback victory in the off-year elections of 1938, something that successfully halted "the forward motion of the peacetime New Deal" and as a bonus "preserved the viability of the two-party system in the US," Caddell says.
Although Boehner and McConnell would prefer wheeling and dealing with the other party, Caddell says they need to play "the outside game" and pitch the American people directly, warning about potential presidential abuse of power, a concept the public can easily grasp. No more rhetorical ping-pong over sections of the Internal Revenue Code.
Republicans don't seem to have much of a choice right now.
Each passing day it becomes more obvious that Republicans are making a grave mistake negotiating with the master manipulator in the White House who is trying to dash his ideological enemies on the rocks beneath the fiscal cliff at the end of the year.
As President Obama, a community organizer fluent in the teachings of Saul Alinsky, sanctimoniously postures as the anointed protector of the middle class, he drags GOP lawmakers down into the treacherous minutiae of tax policy. The fiscal cliff refers to massive tax increases and $1.2 trillion in scheduled spending cuts. Unless Washington comes up with a solution, taxes will skyrocket on January 1 and the spending reductions will take effect, likely plunging the nation into a new recession.
The president is obviously bargaining in bad faith, but Boehner keeps playing along with a man utterly, pathologically averse to responsible, statesmanlike fiscal stewardship.
Obama remains as determined as ever to wage class warfare with the backing of a significant, envious chunk of the populace. With the collusion of virtually the entire media and the constant drumbeat about the economic horrors that are just around the corner unless the president gets his way, he has forced Republicans into the politically untenable position of defending the highest earners in society.
Obama feels safe declaring that he will not “extend Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent that we can’t afford, and according to economists, will have the least positive impact on our economy.”
Obama's spendthrift budgetary blueprints have been so extreme and dangerous that even the virtual communists among Democratic lawmakers have refused to support them. For example, this past May a budget resolution based on the president's proposed fiscal 2013 plan was defeated in a vote of 99 to 0. Earlier in the year, the House also unanimously voted down the budget proposed by Obama.
If Obama is seen as a fellow who wants to move the economy to a better place by raising taxes on the Koch Brothers, he will win. But if Obama is seen as an arrogant and unconstitutional power-grabber, he will lose. By that logic, then, Republicans should shift their perceived focus, from defending the low tax rates of billionaires to defending the US Constitution against executive Caesarism.
Republicans are losing on Capitol Hill and in the public relations war. A new Washington Post-Pew Research Center poll suggests most Americans would blame congressional Republicans -- not congressional Democrats and President Obama -- if the country goes over the figurative precipice.
Republicans are damned if they vote to raise taxes and damned if they don't.
"While 53 percent of those surveyed say the GOP would (and should) lose the fiscal cliff blame game, just 27 percent say President Obama would be deserving of more of the blame," the Post reports. "Roughly one in 10 (12 percent) volunteer that both sides would be equally to blame."
In addition to pressure from the general public, Speaker Boehner is now being vigorously attacked by movement conservatives unhappy with his overall leadership and with his recent power play against prominent Tea Party-backed fiscal hawks in the House GOP conference. Boehner stripped several conservative lawmakers of key committee posts, reportedly because they have taken a hard line against tax increases.
After Boehner indicated he might be willing to accept an $800-billion tax increase -- half the amount Obama wants -- high-profile conservative activist L. Brent Bozell III said the Grand Old Party was no longer the party of limited government, limited spending, and limited taxes.
"It is now officially exactly right behind the Democrats -- on everything," Bozell said. "It is time for conservatives to start looking for a new home. There's precious little left for us here."
Regardless of how negotiations between the president and Congress turn out, the long-term prognosis for America seems bleak at the moment. We have been falling in slow-motion into a fiscal abyss of our own making for decades. The "fiscal cliff" is merely a helpful, dramatic expression that illustrates the exigencies of the moment.
The national debt now stands at $16.3 trillion, up from $10.6 trillion on Inauguration Day 2009. But that $16.3 trillion figure is misleading. Government accounting tricks keep another $86.8 trillion in unfunded liabilities related to Social Security, Medicare, and federal employees' future retirement benefits off the books and out of the public eye. Add the two figures together and you arrive at the more accurate, unimaginably large sum of $103.1 trillion.
Something has to be done.
As former Bush White House press secretary Ari Fleischer tweeted Monday, "If we go over [the] tax cliff, [the] first few weeks will be brutal for [the] GOP. [The] [r]est of the year will be brutal for Obama. Do Republicans have the stomach for it?"
Americans will soon find out.
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