The Magazine

A Fine Mess

Dec 10, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 13 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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Is the Grand Old Party in as much disarray as it seems? Yup. For one thing, Republicans are electorally shellshocked. For the past couple of years, they had been confident Barack Obama would lose in November. Many Republicans held that belief going into Election Day. This was the first time since 1948 that Republicans were confident they were going to win a presidential election​—​and then lost it. The Republican psyche will take a while to recover from the shock of November 6.

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It’s also gradually sunk in that the GOP has lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections, and that the GOP has been thumped in three of the last four national contests (2006, 2008, and 2012). Since the end of the Cold War, the Republican party has had only two really good election days, in 1994 and in 2010. Those were both off-year victories in reaction to the mistakes of first-term Democratic presidents, and in neither case proved harbingers of presidential victory two years later.

Well, if the electoral scene isn’t pretty, maybe the legislative one is better? It’s true Republicans still control the House. But this turns out to be at best a mixed blessing. Because they’re in control, House Republicans are supposed to negotiate with the president on the budget and taxes. They’re united in scorning President Obama’s opening proposal. But what’s the GOP proposal for averting the fiscal cliff? There doesn’t seem to be one.

Might it be prudent for Republicans to acquiesce, for now, to a modified version of Obama’s proposal to keep current income tax rates the same for 98 percent of Americans, while also insisting on maintaining the reduced payroll tax rate of the last two years (see “The GOP’s Payroll Tax Opportunity” above) and reversing the dangerous defense sequester? That deal would be doable, wouldn’t wreck the country, and would buy Republicans time to have much needed internal discussion and debates about where to go next.

Nope, can’t be done! There’s a pledge, you see, enforced by a stern and precise pledge-master who would be very, very upset if members of Congress were to have the presumption to unshackle themselves. As our modern-day Angelo (the original can be found in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure) put it last week, “Everybody who signed the pledge, including Peter King, who tried to weasel out of it, shame on him. .  .  . I hope his wife understands the commitments last a little longer than two years or something.”

Well, perhaps this evidence that their pledge-master has, shall we say, lost some perspective on life will help Republicans think for themselves. After all, surely Republican members of Congress understand there’s something crazy about appearing to fight to the death for a tax code in which Mitt Romney and others pay a 14 percent tax on millions of capital income​—​while silently allowing the payroll tax on labor to go up from 13.3 percent to 15.3 percent for all the working stiffs? 

By the way, why isn’t allowing the payroll tax to go up a violation of the pledge? Well, we’re told, that cut was temporary. But weren’t the Bush rate cuts temporary too? Isn’t that why we’re going over the fiscal cliff​—​because we revert to the permanent rates on January 1? No, because apparently in the murky metaphysics of the plutocratic pledge-master, some temporary tax cuts are less temporary than others.

Will Republicans in Congress be successful at finding a way out of their current mess? Who knows. This year, the most well-funded Republican candidate in history, with the most professional campaign, supported by the most sophisticated super-PACs, proved unable to find a path to victory​—​even though such a path was eminently findable. Republicans in Congress are equally capable of winding up on the losing side of the equation. So 2012 could end up a lost year for the GOP.

And 2013? Politics is full of surprises. The Grand Old Party sure seems to be in a grand old mess. But messes can produce moments of opportunity, lemons can be turned into lemonade, and it’s always darkest before the dawn.

Except when it turns pitch black.


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