The GOP Has Taken America Hostage -- Is There a Downside for Them?

News & Politics

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the fiscal cliff "negotiations" is that there is essentially no downside for Congressional Republicans in holding the country and its economy hostage. Democrats are less than two months removed from having resoundingly won the Presidency, gained seats in the Senate, and earned over a million more votes for House candidates than did Republicans. Due to gerrymandering, however, the Republicans still have a narrow majority in the House. Due to the Senate's ungovernable filibuster rules, Republicans can also control the balance of legislation in the Upper Chamber as well.

It's true that Republicans have been taking a beating in the polling on the fiscal cliff negotiations. That's not surprising, since Republicans want very unpopular things. Further cuts to earned benefit programs and lower taxes on the rich were resoundingly rejected by voters in November, and they continue to poll poorly. In theory, fear of voter backlash should cause Republicans to think twice about holding the line on these policies. But voters already rejected Republicans by wide margins this year and it did little to weaken their negotiating position.

There is little problem for Republicans, then, in attempting to get their way through holding the economy hostage despite the clear will of the American people. The biggest danger to most individual Republicans remains a primary challenge from someone even farther to the right. The vast majority of them are so protected by gerrymandering as to face little to no danger from a Democratic challenger in the near future.

Also, since the conservative agenda depends on the notion that government itself is a failure and doesn't work, there's no issue for them in making that supposed incompetence a reality. Since the President and his party end up being blamed by voters when economic conditions are poor, scuttling the economy in the wake the President's re-election is actually a smart political move for them.

It's up to Democrats to show that government can be a force for good and to protect the economy, which means that only Democrats have the incentive to reach a deal to avert crises like the "fiscal cliff" or the debt ceiling. Republicans have no such incentive.

But there is yet another twisted irony here. Since conservatives both lack incentive to make a deal work and want deeply unpopular policies, it makes perfect sense for them to withhold any cooperation on a deal that makes sense and the American people actually want, opting instead to force most Democrats to vote for an amalgam of terrible policies while they themselves remain mostly intransigent. And why not? Since seniors tend to like their earned benefits but support Republicans because of fear that tax revenues are being spent on the "wrong" people, why not force Democrats to cut those benefits while raising taxes to avert a fiscal crisis? There's no significant backlash Republicans can expect from voting no.

From the conservative calculus, there's no reason to stop the taking of economic hostages and no reason not to push the damage of horrible votes to avert crises back onto Democrats.

So what should Democrats do? The same thing governments do when confronted by more pedestrian hostage takers: refuse to negotiate. Insist on the correct and popular policies, and if Republicans refuse to abide by them, then allow the chips to fall where they will on various fiscal crises.

There should be, then, no deal on the fiscal cliff today. Democrats should make it clear who was responsible for the failure to come to a deal and why, allow the tax increases and cuts to take place, and then do little over the next two years but force Republicans to vote against simple and popular policies like middle-class tax cuts, repeal of the most onerous sequestration cuts, immigration reform and the entire rest of the broadly popular Democratic agenda all the way until November 2014.

It may or may not be that voters will punish Republicans appropriately at that time. But at the very least Democrats will avoid the indignity of being manipulated by hostage takers into voting against the American people just to reach a terrible deal.

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