Democrats' Cliff Compromise Is Bad; But the Strategic Consequences Are Disastrous

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I’ll be blunt: I hate the fiscal-cliff compromise that Mitch McConnell and Joe Biden are hammering out today, which will make the Bush tax cuts permanent on income below $450,000, renew the current, relatively generous, duration of unemployment benefits for a year, along with some low- and middle-income tax credits, and grant the GOP a reprieve on the scheduled reversion of the estate tax to its Clinton-era level. I think the president made a huge mistake by negotiating over what he’d previously said was non-negotiable (namely, the expiration of the Bush tax cuts on income over $250,000). Then the White House compounded that mistake by sending Biden to “close” the deal when Harry Reid appeared to give up on it. As a practical matter, this signaled to Republicans that the White House wouldn’t walk away from the bargaining table, allowing the GOP to keep extracting concessions into the absolute final hours before the deadline.

Having said that, I disagree with my colleague Tim Noah a bit: I think a reasonable person can defend the bill on its own terms. The fact is that nudging up the tax threshold to $450,000 only sacrifices $100-200 billion in revenue over the next decade (against the $700-800 billion the administration would have secured with its original threshold), while allowing unemployment benefits to lapse would cause real pain to both the 2 million people directly affected and, indirectly, to the economy. Yes, Obama could have gotten the latter without giving up the former had he just waited another few daysat which point what the GOP considers a tax increase suddenly becomes a tax cut. But these things are always easier to pull the trigger on when you, er, don’t actually have to pull the trigger. I can’t begrudge Obama his wanting to avoid some downside risk for only a marginally better deal.

My far bigger gripe with the whole fiscal-cliff exercise has always been the strategic dimensionhow it affects the next showdown with the GOP, and the one after that. Coming into the negotiation, Obama had two big problems: First, no matter how tough he talked, Republicans always assumed he’d blink in the end, for the simple reason that he pretty much always had. (This is one of the major themes of my book about his first term.) Second, despite the results of the most recent election, in which Obama won a fairly commanding victory on a platform of raising taxes on wealthy people, the GOP continued to believe that public opinion was mostly on its side. House Republicans cited the preservation of their majoritynever mind that their own candidates received fewer total votes than House Democratic candidatesand polls showing most Americans still think government is too big.

Fortunately, the fiscal cliff offered Obama a chance to solve both these problems. He could afford to be unyielding because the economic consequences of going over the cliff for a few days or weeks would be relatively minimal and almost entirely reversible. And doing so would immediately demonstrate to the GOP that public opinion was emphatically not on its sidepolls showed that the public reaction to going over the cliff would be both intense and heavily trained on Republicans. Throw in Obama’s post-election bump in approval ratings, and there was never a better time to hold out.

Instead, the emerging deal will reinforce the convictions that have made the GOP such a toxic presence in Washington. If Obama will cave even when he’s got all the leverage, when won’t he cave? Never, the Republicans will assume. If Obama’s too scared to stop bargaining and let the public decide who’s right in this instance, when the polls appear to back him, then he must think our position is more popular than he lets on. Suffice it to say, these are not sentiments you want at the front of Republicans’ mind as they prepare to shake him down over the debt limit in another two months. The White House continues to maintain that it simply won't negotiate over the limit. After this deal, why would any Republican ever believe this? I certainly don’t, and I desperately want to.

As in previous rounds of Obama-GOP negotiations, a lot of liberals are surely hoping that the lunacy of the House Republicans will save us from Obama’s overly generous offers. And, it’s true, House Republicans can normally be relied upon to reject a deal that’s absurdly generous by any objective measure but falls short of their virtue-police standard of purity. They may well do so again tonight, inshallah. But that doesn’t solve the broader strategic problem. Obama has already shown his cards on the parameters that will define his negotiations with Republicans throughout his second term. And there’s no one to save us from that.

Update: The Huffington Post is reporting that the deal will make up some additional revenue by capping deductions for the most affluent. I suspect there will be more updates as the afternoon goes on. 

Update II: Changed "level of unemployment benefits" to "duration." 

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