Republican leaders are negotiating with President Barack Obama over a package to prevent America, now awash in $16.25 trillion public debt, from going over the “fiscal cliff,” to prevent a ruinous plunge in America’s global credit standing.
Alas, Republicans seem ready to fall into a classic political trap: sharing blame if a deal goes wrong while getting none of the credit if the deal works well. There are several reasons for this. First, Obama, a re-elected president with a mainstream media that will blame the GOP for any logjam or breakdown, holds most of the high negotiating cards. Second, if the GOP stands firm on taxes it risks a replay of the 1996 shutdown debacle, for which the GOP was blamed, but with far higher stakes today given the fiscal cliff factor. Third, having signed onto a compromise deal, Republicans would own equally any result, even though any bargain struck likely will be 90 to 95 percent towards Obama’s position.
Fortunately, there is a way Republicans can escape falling into the trap: Publicly accept President Obama’s proposals in full, subject to the following conditions: First, there must be no staff midnight sessions drafting last-minute hidden hooks. Second, there must be no floor amendments by either party, simply an up or down vote on the deal. Third, the president must stand before the TV cameras and state that his party owns all of it, flanked by House and Senate Democratic leaders who say the same. Fourth, GOP House and Senate leaders declare that (a) as Obama won the election, but (b) the GOP opposes tax rate increases as bad economics, the GOP will step aside, without endorsing the
If the deal works well, Democrats will get, and deserve credit. If the deal works badly, Democrats may be blamed—though they might not, if voters continue to be as forgiving as they were in re-electing the president.
Procedurally, Republicans would vote against in the Senate, where the Democrats have the majority and thus can pass the bill without a single Republican vote, as happened with Obamacare. In the House, about 30 Republican members in GOP-safe districts can skip the session, and thus allow the Democrats to pass the bill with only their own party’s votes; the remainder of GOP members would vote against the deal.
One reason that negotiations are underway is the implicit premise that compromise is a virtue. This is true most of the time, but not always. Only if a deal is a good one, and if both sides adhere to it, is compromise a virtue. Such requires a level of broad agreement simply not present today.
The 1986 tax reform and the 1990s base-closing deal are examples of constructive compromise. The tax reform deal was possible because differences between the two parties on taxation were modest at best, with both parties seeking lower rates in return for closing tax loopholes. The base-closing deal was possible because both parties desired that locally popular military bases around the country be closed to cut wasteful spending, and the only way to do this was to stand shoulder to shoulder for political cover. Both deals worked.
But today the split between the parties is far too wide to expect a constructive compromise. Democrats want a high-tax, high-spend budget, with taxes made more steeply progressive and spending cuts targeting defense; Republicans want a lower-tax, lower-spending budget with tax rates cut to stimulate investment and tax loopholes closed to raise revenue, and with meaningful reductions in currently built-in entitlement spending increases. These vision gaps are far too huge to close in a deal stuffed with half-baked measures.
By denying Democrats political cover, Republicans would restore the principle of accountability for policies adopted. Accountability only can be fixed if bargains and party positions are transparent enough for the voting public to see. If Republicans negotiate a deal, they will co-own it, and thus be unable to credibly criticize a bad result. Also, they will have sacrificed bedrock principles that underlie their vision of how to fix things. That will bode ill for future elections.
It is possible—even likely–that the Democrats will “game” the bargain with staff mischief, but they will do that anyway with a compromise deal. Only if there is a failure for which Democrats are blamed can Republicans reasonably expect to regain the White House and the Senate. A deal that offers the GOP crumbs and is really Obama’s plan slightly modified has no better prospect to succeed than Obama’s proposal standing alone. And the Obama plan will not succeed, unless the laws of economics have been repealed, or the vast latent motive power of the American economy, against forbidding odds, triumphs over bad policies.
A deal with a president in the driver’s seat amounts to a bungee-jump for the GOP, using a frayed political rope as lifeline. At best there is the momentary thrill of jumping off by striking a deal; but if as likely the rope breaks the GOP will feel the political pain, not the president or his party.
In sum, let the Republicans play political judo—applying one’s own leverage against an opponent’s weight and momentum, to defeat the Democratic attempt to force the GOP to compromise its core economic principles and thus insulate Democrats from accountability for their misguided economic policies.
John C. Wohlstetter is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, author of “Sleepwalking With the Bomb“, and founder of the issues blog “Letter From the Capitol”.