Perhaps the least surprising headline in the aftermath of the tax deal last week was the one in Politico declaring that congressional Democrats are planning to run against “chaos” in the 2014 midterm elections. It’s unsurprising because Democrats have been working, with considerable success, to establish the proposition that Washington is dysfunctional because of the GOP.
Republicans, for their part, have contributed to the storyline through their own internal divisions. But political parties always have internal divisions. This is mainly a media-driven phenomenon, and not just the “mainstream” media. The interests of the liberal media and hard-core conservative media, especially talk radio, converge in propagating the view that the GOP is divided, feckless, and incapable of governing—though of course they disagree over whether Tea Party Republicanism is the source of the problem or the solution.
As an example of the success of the “Chaos in Washington—GOP to Blame” storyline, consider the poll results, widely disseminated beginning in November before negotiations over taxes and spending got underway, that the public would overwhelmingly blame Republicans for failure to avoid going over the fiscal cliff. Democrats lauded the sagacity of the people’s reasoned judgment, of course, especially in light of their recent expression of wisdom in reelecting President Obama. But seriously: How do you rationally know whose fault a breakdown of negotiations is when the negotiations haven’t even begun, let alone broken down?
More of the same is on the way. Congress will have to take up legislation increasing the debt limit by the end of February. Many and various are Democrats, their tweeters, and their tweeps in the promulgation of the view that Republicans would be glad to see the United States default on its sovereign debt in order to try to force the president’s hand on spending cuts. After all, that’s what happened last time, isn’t it? Well, no, it isn’t, but what’s that got to do with it?
The debt-limit negotiations will certainly be protracted and difficult, not least because the president has declared that he won’t negotiate at all (which on the one hand is ridiculous, but on the other does seem to foster an impression among his liberal base that he is being tough). But you can count on the left-right echo chamber to portray every bump along the way to the eventual agreement as GOP bungling. Just to hazard a guess, polls will soon be released showing that people adjudge the GOP responsible for the default. “Chaos” again.
Given the Democrats’ evident success in blaming the GOP in advance, anyone with critical faculties really ought to be asking: If the public has already made up its mind who is responsible for failure, which side has the greater incentive to be obstinate in negotiations? But I am not pre-blaming Democrats for our sovereign default (which won’t happen) any more than I blame Democrats for taking us over the fiscal cliff (which didn’t happen)—or for creating “chaos” along the way. That’s because it still makes more sense to see Washington as a city in which politicians act rationally and in accordance with their interests, and not as berserkers engaged in wanton destruction for sport or ideological fanatics willing to bring the country down if they don’t get all they want in every situation.
So back to basics: The country is very closely divided on partisan grounds and has been for two decades or more. The pattern in our elections over that time seems to be that any time voters produce one-party control of the presidency and Congress, they repent of it fairly quickly. This makes sense given the tendency both parties have to overreach in such circumstances. The rapidity with which voters “correct” the problem is a product of the closeness of the American political divide: Neither party has much margin for error. In the 32 years since the 1980 election, the White House and the House of Representatives have been under the control of opposing parties for 22, as they will be for the next 2 years.
With government divided and the parties largely sorted on ideological lines, negotiations over highly contested policy matters are inevitably going to be difficult, protracted, and resolved only at the 11th hour. Goofy Starbucks campaigns notwithstanding, there is no incentive to “come together” until one has extracted as much as one can from the other side. Just the opposite, in fact: One’s constituents want reassurance that they got as much as they could before they settle for less than they want.
After the 2010 election, with Democrats still in control of a lame-duck Congress but the GOP barbarians at the gates, Obama got in trouble with his base by arranging relatively quickly for a two-year extension of the Bush-era tax rates. He probably had several reasons for doing so, not least of which was neutralizing a GOP issue for 2012. Also, if he figured he could get his increase in the top rate through after he won reelection, he was right. But he paid a price with his core supporters, and there would be no subsequent incentive for quick agreement once the GOP took control of the House.
With divided party control, the only thing that produces an agreement in the end is the preference of both sides for something over nothing. Republicans weren’t going to allow the United States to default in 2011, and President Obama wasn’t going to refuse the budget-cutting mechanisms the GOP was able to get through Congress as a condition. Republicans weren’t going to go over the fiscal cliff in order to stand in principle against increases in the top tax rate, and Democrats weren’t going to make them do so by insisting in the Senate on provisions that would kill the deal.
But weren’t most House Republicans opposed to the final deal? Didn’t that very same House GOP refuse to go along with Speaker John Boehner’s “Plan B,” which would have kept the Bush rates in effect for all incomes under $1 million, thereby undermining his negotiating position and threatening his speakership within his own conference?
Sure, Republican House members voted 2-1 against the final deal. Why wouldn’t they? It wasn’t their policy preference, and they knew it was going to pass anyway. With Obama’s imprimatur on the deal, Boehner was responsible not for delivering his conference, but only for securing enough GOP votes to allow passage with overwhelming Democratic support. As for the failure of “Plan B,” it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which it did pass and the final outcome was much more favorable to the GOP. The Senate was not going to rubber-stamp a House “Plan B” bill: Having passed a bill with the top-rate increase taking effect at $250,000, the Senate would have insisted on amending the House bill and sending it back with a compromise number. Say, $450,000. The Biden-McConnell talks were actually “Plan C,” to the same result.
If anything, the collapse of “Plan B” protected GOP House members by allowing 151 of them to stand on principle by voting against any increase in tax rates without consequence. For many of those House members who did support the final deal, timing was no doubt propitious: The vote came after the Bush rates expired on midnight, January 1, so the vote was arguably about keeping taxes from going up on the 99 percent, to coin a term. Boehner’s speakership was never in serious jeopardy.
It’s clear that Obama wanted a deal and that his only red line was an increase to Clinton-era levels in the top tax rate for high-earners, however delimited. It also seems likely that Obama was worried that Senate majority leader Harry Reid was willing to go over the cliff and blame the GOP. In the end, Obama undercut Reid by empowering Vice President Joe Biden to negotiate the final deal with Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell. Reid cronies have since been anonymously grousing about being left out in the cold. They were. Biden is a figure both sides in the Senate trust more than they do Reid.
The president had the upper hand in the fiscal cliff drama because the Bush tax rates were expiring January 1 anyway. The debt limit negotiations afford him no such advantage. But they do have a deadline of about March 1, which means there will be tough negotiations ending in an agreement. That agreement will be whatever the House and Senate say is the price of the increase. Between now and the 11th hour, and ever after, Democrats will portray the negotiations as more GOP-caused chaos, because that’s what they want as backdrop to the 2014 election. It’s a shame that so many people who ought to know better will take them at face value.
Tod Lindberg, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.