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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