I’m not sure why, but even though everyone expected it, even though I called it a month ago, I’m still extremely angry about Obama’s decision to cave in to the Republicans on the Bush tax-cut issue. Perhaps I’d been holding out some hope until the very end. Perhaps it’s because no matter how angry you anticipate you’ll be when somebody does something you find despicable, you don’t fully feel the anger until they’ve actually done it.
I won’t spend too much time going into all of the reasons why extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest 2% of Americans is a bad idea in terms of policy—I think most people already understand that trickle-down economics is bunk and that the more money we borrow from China the worse-off our country is—but it’s a far worse decision in terms of politics. In this case, the politics are more important than the policy because this sets the tone for the next two years and will thus have a significant impact on every policy to be addressed during that time.
First of all, it’s important to know what public opinion is on this issue. In a recent CBS news poll only 26% of responders said they believed the tax-cuts should continue for everyone. 53% said they should only continue for income under $250,000 a year, and 14% said they should all expire. If you add up the last two numbers, that’s 67% of Americans who want the tax-cuts for the wealthy to expire to just 26% who want them to continue. Public opinion is overwhelmingly against extending the tax-cuts for the rich (even just among Republicans, the numbers are 52% opposed to 46% in favor).
There are those who say that making a deal with Republicans was a political necessity. Obama did what he had to do. It was the responsible thing. The Republicans would have blocked unemployment benefits for people badly needing them unless Obama agreed to a two-year extension of the Bush tax-cuts. Obama used an appropriate metaphor, painting the Republicans as terrorists holding the middle class and the unemployed hostage. He said that while you shouldn’t negotiate with terrorists, sometimes it’s necessary to prevent the hostages from being harmed.
But that’s only half the analogy. If you cave in to the terrorists’ demands they may release the hostages this time, but it only encourages more hostage taking in the future. The Republicans know exactly how to manipulate Obama. They’ve been doing it for the last two years and will continue to do it for the next two years unless Obama finally stands up to them. Sometimes you have to let the hostages get hurt to prevent harm to future hostages. Show the terrorists that taking hostages is not a winning strategy, and they’ll have to find a different one.
So what could Obama have done? It’s very simple, and it would have been a far better strategy than caving in:
Call the Republicans’ bluff. Make them filibuster. Make them hold up every single piece of legislation until the 111th Congress expires, and at the beginning of next year all taxes would go up across the board, for the rich and the middle class alike. Make it clear that it is the Republican Party that is responsible for taxes going up, that their obstruction is the reason the unemployed have stopped receiving benefits, that the START treaty hasn’t been ratified, and so on. Make it as clear as possible to the American people (most of whom are already on your side) that the Number One priority of the Republican Party is getting tax cuts for their rich friends, and that they’re willing to let the middle class, the unemployed, and national security suffer just to help out the people who are least in need of help.
At the very beginning of the next legislative session, introduce new tax-cut legislation completely separate from the Bush plan. Cut taxes for the bottom 98% of Americans if you must, but refuse to include any cuts for the top 2%. Include an extension of unemployment benefits along with compensation for whatever the unemployed had been deprived of thanks to Republican obstruction.
Dare the Republicans to filibuster this. They probably will at first. But how long do you think they’d be able to hold out? Every single night, even the least informed Americans will turn on the TV and hear about how their taxes have gone up and the unemployed aren’t getting the money they need to heat their homes because Republicans insist that the rich aren’t rich enough. Do you think the majority of Americans will blame the president for not caving in? Or will they blame the Republican leaders whose shrill cries of “but…but…but the job-creators!” will grow increasingly hollow as this drags on.
The media may even decide to look deeper into the issue—to research the impact of personal income-tax reduction for the wealthiest Americans and actually inform their viewers that it doesn’t create jobs! (Honestly, they’ll still probably be too afraid of accusations of bias that they won’t do it. If the facts come down solely on one side of a political argument, the media’s tendency is not to report those facts.)
But if the Republicans are pressed, they will fold. They’ll see which way the political winds are blowing, they’ll notice their approval ratings plummeting, they’ll hear from their staffers just how many angry calls they’re getting every day from people demanding to know why they can’t feed their children because the rich need more money, and they will end the filibuster and let the bill come to a vote.
Republicans are cowardly politicians just like the Democrats, and if someone stands up to them they will cave in. But Obama has yet to stand up to them.
If he actually did fight back and won this political victory, it would set a great the tone for the next two years. Republicans would know that they can no longer get away with blocking everything, and Democrats would know that if they’re willing to fight they can win.
Furthermore, Obama’s disaffected base would be completely re-energized. Hope would be resurrected. Change would be back on the table. Perhaps now would be the time to bring the public option back up for debate or to impose stricter regulations on Wall Street.
The Republican-controlled House of Representatives may uniformly oppose these things, but if the people can clearly see which party is trying to get things done and which party wants to spend all of its time investigating the White House while the economy suffers, they’ll reward the party that’s fighting and punish the one that’s obstructing. Obama will get a second term and fresh congressional majorities in 2012 and he can become the Change president we all hoped he would be.
Oh, but it’s too late. The deal is done. Obama has decided to let the Bush tax-cuts continue, thus empowering the Republicans to get whatever they want for the next two years just by threatening to filibuster.
To make matters worse, the “Bush tax-cuts” will henceforth be known as the “Obama/Bush tax-cuts” and Obama will have no defense against the Republicans howling about the deficit in the next election. The tax-cuts will add an extra $700 billion to the deficit and the Republicans will put the responsibility squarely on Obama’s shoulders in spite of their hand in it.
Obama won’t be able to defend himself, because the responsibility was squarely on his shoulders, and he shirked it. He negotiated with the terrorists, compromised himself and the country, and when the terrorists come back and blame him for the harm to the country that they made him do, he’ll have no excuse. It’s over. The terrorists win.