On the fiscal cliff, I’ll take moderation over chaos

It’s been frustrating to be a liberal over the last few weeks.

Last month we handed President Obama a huge ideological victory and mandate, and he has responded by putting the Great Society on the chopping block in fiscal cliff negotiations. Despite the President’s new proposal that takes a firmer stance against safety net cuts, we can’t trust that the line will hold when Congress comes back from Christmas vacation.

At first blush, it would seem we’re all being conned.

Had President Obama only been born with a spine, the argument goes, he would have avoided this scare by demanding that the country take a sharp turn to the left, and daring the GOP follow him over the cliff.

Never mind that this would have taken Medicare and at least three percent of our GDP along with them. Instead, the President reverted back to his old self, allowing John Boehner to walk all over him, and deliberately passing on the opportunity to give the GOP the fork-in-the-eye that accompanies an electoral loss of this magnitude.

But I’m not sure the story I’ve laid out is entirely fair.

I agree that a more progressive proposal than the one originally put forward by the administration would be better public policy. We could easily avoid the fiscal cliff by scaling back our military, raising top marginal income tax rates and reforming our capital gains tax structure. But just because President Obama isn’t copying and pasting my ideas doesn’t mean he’s intentionally selling out liberals. Here’s why:

First, before we go any further, we need to take a step back and remember that any deal that eventually surfaces will need Republican votes. Not only does that move any potential deal to the right, it also moves any proposal that can be considered serious to the right as well. I’d much prefer that the Republicans simply agree to every single Democratic demand, but had the President made that a condition, he would have sounded a lot like this:

Second, the GOP’s recent implosion, and inability to pass their own “Plan B”, is a pretty clear indicator that they aren’t going to sign on to any deal, regardless of how much the President gives, without significant pressure from outside the beltway. Coupled with the President’s new, more progressive proposal, this means that the real deal-making will be done after the new year in the beginning phases of a budding recession; the time between now and then will be spent jockeying for position.

The President has already stated that, if talks fail, he will use both his inaugural address and State of the Union to tell the American people why the blame lies with the GOP. That will be a much easier case to make if he has demonstrated a willingness to meet the Republicans more than halfway in an attempt to be the unifying leader he was originally elected to be.

Third, the President has significantly strengthened his hand during the negotiating process. While I agree that chained CPI is bad public policy, it has replaced raising the Medicare eligibility age, presumably taking the eligibility age off the table in future talks. If and when we hit January 2nd without a deal, President Obama will be able to make a compelling case to the American people that he was serious about governing and the GOP wasn’t, and will be left with an even more leverage to bring the Republican Party back to sanity when talks resume.

The larger point to make here is that these talks, at their core, are about more than solving our budget and taxation issues; they are about solving our governance issues. As saddening as its ideological sacrifices have been, the Democratic Party remains the only force keeping our political system functional right now.

President Obama and Democrats in Congress can be a liberal counterweight to the GOP’s conservatism, or they can be a serious counterweight to the GOP’s disregard for the good-faith negotiating that is supposed to define our political system. As Jonathan Chait writes:

But reasonable compromise to avert the fiscal cliff is impossible. Republicans, as a whole, don’t even seem capable of linear thinking about the budget…. They don’t even seem capable of politically organizing in a way that maximizes their fanatic principles. The House Republican caucus is simply a teeming pit of revanchist anger.

Obama’s remarks… indicate an apparent acceptance of the dynamic and a desire to at least steer the process toward minimizing the economic harm that would result if the contractionary policies scheduled for next year take effect. Obama is again demanding a tax cut for income under $250,000 a year, along with canceling out some of the more punitive spending cuts…

You can see in the Democratic side a persistent good-government impulse, one that finds the GOP’s inability to even advance its own interests rationally as a troublesome failure of government for which they themselves ultimately share responsibility. It’s true that a smarter, better organized Republican party would be easier to deal with. But the GOP remains dysfunctional and apparently bent on self-immolation.

President Obama can take a hard-line liberal stance which pushes the GOP over the cliff, guaranteeing significant cuts to the safety net and throwing the economy into another recession, or he can be the serious alternative to the Republican Party’s know-nothing, do-nothing ideology that keeps our political system from dissolving. Given the choice between moderation and chaos, I’ll take moderation.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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20 Responses to “On the fiscal cliff, I’ll take moderation over chaos”

  1. mirror says:

    Like too!!!

  2. Michael Harold says:

    A very, very Third Rail (i..e, Third Way) blog post. I tend to rely on my life’s experience as a U.S. citizen and my memory of what’s happened over the past 30+ years where these types of discussions are concerned. If I did not feel I had already lost many of my Constitutional freedoms, many of my economic opportunities and not lost my understanding of the many ways in which sociopathology manifests itself in society, I might find more to agree with where Jon is concerned. Seeing that is not the case, I will “moderately” agree to strongly disagree with just about everything Jon has both posited and proposed. Given that I’m both a liberal and a rational human being, I have come to the conclusion that President Obama is not a weak president. He is doing exactly what he wants. Please see Jane Hamsher for details.

  3. ezpz says:

    Yes, and I didn’t realize at the time that your reply to me on that thread was facetious. :o)

  4. Naja pallida says:

    Hey, if you rearrange the letters in “moderation over chaos” you can get “dramatic Hoover noose” … or “Hoover romanced iotas”.

  5. MichaelS says:

    There’s one major flaw with your otherwise very thoughtful argument, Jon… Obama isn’t negotiating with any responsible party, and he has never demanded to do so.

    When a gang is holding hostages and ready to shoot them, you can’t negotiate with one member of the gang if the others won’t listen to him. Therefore you either have to negotiate with the other gang members (not an option here, they’re not rational) or *demand* that the negotiator you’re dealing with be willing to go around his irrational gang members.

    Obama is trying to strike a bi-partisan deal.. That means garnering Dem votes and Republican votes. Boehner is negotiating in bad faith, only trying for a deal that has majority R support only. That’s not bi-partisanship.

    So, Obama needs to DEMAND that Boehner bring ANY agreement to the floor for a vote, whether or not he has a majority of R’s on board, or else all talks stop immediately. Moreover, he should involve Pelosi in the talks so that they’re truly bi-partisan.

    This is a democracy. Since when did it become run by a MINORITY?? (That minority being the majority of the majority…)

  6. htfd says:

    There is only one reason why Obama and Pelosi are pushing it for happening now, both are closet republicans and neither of them want Bush Tax Cuts to end. It’s not concern for the cuts to the military because they can always sell off all the gulf courses at tidy profit and fund the military for the next 10 years or more and not be hitting up tax payers to fund them.

  7. NCMan says:

    And, when will they add drug price negotiation to the discussion? And, elimination of the FICA payroll tax cap?

    Why is it that any spending “cuts” that are suggested are all through the elimination of benefits instead of lowering actual costs?

  8. Sweetie says:

    Hey, it’s time to have a rally to restore sanity, eh?

    Let’s have some of that “moderation” rather than C-H-A-O-S!

    “When the political tricksters fail and the voting public actually gets a little bit upset, it is time to send in the clowns, and so most recently a couple of late-night TV comedians have joined the fray, holding a massive rally to ‘restore sanity.’ This new sanity is epitomized by the following family portrait: daddy is a ‘Conservative Republican’ mommy is an ‘Obama Liberal,’ the son is a ‘Libertarian,’ the daughter is a ‘Green,’ and the dog (the only one of them who is sane) is trying to run away. Meet the Losers: they are the ones who have no idea what class their family is in, or what their class interest is, and as far as their chances of making successful use of democratic politics to collectively defend and advance their class interest, well… they are the Losers—that says it all, doesn’t it? All that blood spilled in the name of liberty and democracy, and to show for it we have a country of insane Losers and the odd sane stray dog, free to a good home.

    But it is all a waste of time: the Losers may vote or not vote, they may flap their gums at the breakfast table or twinkle their toes up and down the street holding signs, where they may take part in peaceful protest or get teargassed and shot with rubber bullets—the result will be exactly the same.”


  9. Sweetie says:

    GP just did another article in which it’s supposed to be a surprise that Pelosi isn’t really a progressive, liberal, or whatever other worthless name we might like to have assigned to her had she not proclaimed the necessity of entering an “era of austerity” two years ago.

    Have a look around. It’s snowing.

  10. Sweetie says:

    Austerity is nice when Pelosi promotes it.

    Obama can cut “entitlements” and keep taxes extremely low for the rich.

    It makes me all warm and fuzzy to promote liberal progressive politicians like them.

    “I agree that a more progressive proposal than the one originally put forward by the administration would be better public policy.”

    Oh, yes, we all agree, don’t we?

  11. mirror says:

    John: Is Jon here to balance Gaius Publius? This is Obama apologetics circa 2009. Even Kevin Drum is starting to have doubts by this time.

  12. Qwert says:

    He’s not failing, he’s very successful at pushing right-wing policies. He’s a neoliberal through-and-through.

  13. Qwert says:

    1. Why is raising taxes and cutting spending a “cliff”? The MSM used to call that “fiscal responsibility”. The article you linked paints a worst-case scenario far milder than the sort of stuff that the public has been routinely been asked to eat in the name of “fiscal responsibility” for nigh-on thirty years now. It sounds rather less bad than the likely combined effect of the several NAFTA-redux accords Obama is hoping to ram through Congress in the near future.

    2. If raising taxes and cutting spending is a cliff, why is raising different taxes and cutting different spending not a cliff?

    3. How does your “the Republicans made him do it” scenario square with all the right-wing policies that Obama has pushed independently of Congress? His purging progressives off his economic team after winning in 2008? His appointment of right-wingers like Geithner? His DoJ giving the banksters a get-out-of-jail-free card? His steamrollering of the state attorneys-general into dropping their bank investigations? His creation of an unfunded and unstaffed joke federal commission that supposedly was to replace the killed state-level bank investigations? His establishment of the catfood commission after Congress expressly rejected the formation of such? His appointment the right-wing ogre Simpson to co-chair it, and then trying to push its unofficial “findings” after it fell apart without releasing an official report? It just doesn’t wash. Obama clearly an economic right-winger.

  14. MG1 says:

    The easy way to “fix” Social Security is to raise the payroll cap on SS contributions beyond $106,800. You didn’t mention this at all, yet it’s an obvious solution. Bernie Sanders has suggested keeping the cap where it is, but applying the Social Security earnings tax to incomes over $250,000. Obama’s solution to cut SS benefits, as Krugman says, is “cruel and stupid.” No one, Democrat, Republican or Independent, wants SS benefits cut. Polling is overwhelming on this. The only people who want cuts in SS are the corporate minions in Washington D.C. who pretend they are representing the electorate, and that includes Obama, establishment pleaser in-chief.

  15. karmanot says:

    The Old Obama FAIL: To little, too late, or not at all.

  16. theophrastvs says:

    there is no cliff (it was concocted), there is no chaos (well no more than the usual), and there are no bond vigilantes (cf Krugman) http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/22/guess-who-still-believes-in-invisible-vigilantes/ … just relax, give up nothing to the GOP (or at least try to stop Obama from doing so), and let the politics sausage grinders grind.

  17. Naja pallida says:

    Let’s be really clear here. Obama has not offered moderation yet. He’s offered a solution that Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole would have come up with in 1996, or one that John Boehner may have come up with if he was locked in a room alone without the being actively Teabagged. Not only is he basically offering little but more of the same, he is also trying to erode things that will end up costing us all a lot more in the long run. Cuts to Medicare and/or Social Security are are not just unnecessary but ultimately harmful to our longterm growth, and only being offered out of a craven sense of politics.

    Of course, we haven’t seen a complete plan yet, but the things that have come out are essentially nohting more than kicking the can down the road so we will have to do through this all over again in another year or two. As soon as the Republicans are back in power, they’ll put the tax cuts for the rich back in, and we’ll be right back at square one, WITH cuts to the social safety net. And we’re not even talking about the debt ceiling seriously yet, which is going to be another circle jerk of failure.

  18. Joe Meinhart says:

    all true, and quite convincing, but…
    … why are we talking about cutting ANY services to the elderly or disadvantaged?
    … where is any talk about defense cuts?
    … when will subsidies for the energy industry at least be introduced?

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