09 November 2012

Compromise at the cliff's edge

Although he, too, was a winner last Tuesday, the Republicans having retained control of the House of Representatives easily, Speaker Boehner has been quick to acknowledge the President's victory by affirming his own willingness to compromise on measures necessary to keep the government from going over the so-called "financial cliff." The term portrays a schedule of spending cuts and tax increases as a calamity, and economists apparently regard it so, warning that the combination would plunge the country into another recession. Both the cuts and the tax increases are more drastic than either party desires, so the object is to reduce the deficit, presumably, while both cutting and taxing less. Look more closely -- it doesn't take much -- and Boehner's newfound compromising mood looks little different from his party's past mulishness. Boehner proposes "compromise" by allowing the government to bring in more revenue -- how generous of him! But the added revenue must result only from the end of existing deductions. The Speaker still refuses to countenance increasing tax rates for anybody.

There's an obvious difference between compromise and surrender. Under normal circumstances, there'd be little point to Boehner capitulating on taxes immediately. Rather, even were he sincere, he would hold out against tax increases as long as possible in the hope of getting the Democrats to accept the most minimal increase at the last moment. Likewise, Democrats will try to hold out against the cuts most likely to hurt their base until Republicans agree to minimize the cuts that must come. The circumstances this fall are abnormal. Given the economists' warnings about the consequences of going over the "cliff," stock markets have panicked a little since the election. While some would like to see the sell-offs as votes of no confidence in Obama personally, uncertainty over whether the country will take the plunge seems to be the major factor. If so, that would seem to impose an obligation on the politicians, and the market-worshiping Republicans in particular, to calm the markets by offering terms and making deals as soon as possible rather than posturing. Otherwise, we might fairly accuse them of trying to spread uncertainty and spook the markets in order to spook Obama into giving up early.

Again, the Republicans are under no special obligation now to bow to the President. The only thing definitely repudiated last Tuesday was Mitt Romney; otherwise, Americans as a whole voted for gridlock, emboldening both parties to hunker down if not double down on their core positions. If Americans as a whole actually voted for compromise rather than gridlock, how would anyone tell? However, being stuck with one another for at least two more years, until the next congressional elections, makes compromise look like a practical necessity. But it won't be compromise unless it includes a compromise of principles from each side. Democrats can't tell their constituents to make do with less unless they see Republicans telling their constituents to sacrifice, and vice versa. Republicans may insist on the supposed objective fact that tax increases will inhibit economic growth, but we know that's not the real reason they oppose higher taxes or deplore taxes in general. Their opposition is essentially ideological, and that's the kind of opposition that should be compromised if Republicans are sincere about compromise. Given everyone's fear of the cliff, Boehner may well give in, but if he takes it seriously, why stall? Meanwhile, Americans may look at what awaits at the metaphorical bottom of the cliff -- automatic cuts and tax increases when everyone's worried about deficits -- and wonder what the fuss is about?

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