Fiscal Cliff Deal, Part 1: Understanding Boehner

| January 2 2013
Christopher Cook

First, the news, ICYMI . . .

Our long national nightmare is over — for two months.

On Tuesday evening, the House approved a fiscal-cliff package that was passed by the Senate earlier in the day. In the hours before the vote, conservatives expressed frustration with the deal, which was finalized on Monday by Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Mitch McConnell, the minority leader. But many rank-and-file Republicans ultimately supported the measure, mostly thanks to the eleventh-hour blessing of Speaker John Boehner at a closed caucus meeting on Tuesday afternoon. Members of both parties seemed eager to end this winter standoff over taxes and spending. [ . . . ]

The final tally of the House vote was 257–167, with several top House members voting “nay,” including Eric Cantor (Va.), the majority leader, and Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), the whip. Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the former Republican vice-presidential nominee, voted in support of the plan. “As elected officials, we have a duty to apply our principles to the realities of governing,” Ryan explained in a post-vote statement.

In politics, we have to balance idealism with political reality. This is a very difficult thing to do. The best analogy might be two pastures separated by a rickety wooden fence. In one pasture are all the people who prefer ideological purity. It is clear to all observers that they are to one side of the fence. In the other pasture are the people who will choose pragmatism over purity. It is equally clear where they stand.

Then there are the people who are trying to find a point of equilibrium between the two. They are walking along the top of the wooden fence, trying to maintain their balance.

The people on the purity side of the fence are easily recognizable to, and popular with, their fellows. They look askance at the pragmatism crowd, seeing them as ideologically weak, as wishy-washy establishment types, even as potential quislings. The pragmatism side are equally familiar to and popular with each other. They look across the fence at the purity crowd and see an unbending fringe lacking any cognizance of the political realities that come as standard issue in a representative republic such as ours.

The people walking atop the fence between the two are at constant risk of looking goofy to both sides. All of us have tried to walk along something narrow and high off the ground at some point in our lives (usually in childhood), and we all know that keeping our balance can be difficult. It occasionally results in little lurches this way or that, as the body attempts to recover equilibrium after gravity pulls us to one side or the other. To the outside observer, these lurches can look comical, like the body is schizophrenically wrestling with itself.

I would place Speaker Boehner among those who seek to walk atop that rickety fence. In the Speaker’s case, it comes with the job. He cannot ignore the realities of divided government and the need to work with the other side. But he also cannot abandon principle entirely in favor of compromise. The former is unrealistic, and he would soon appear comically intransigent. The latter would be unacceptable, as he would cease to stand for anything at all. It cannot be easy. Many on either side of the purity-pragmatism divide don’t show Speaker Boehner nearly the sympathy that this difficult position calls for.

As someone who tries to walk that fence myself, I feel that sympathy. I am, on a personal level, deeply ideological. However, I am also keenly aware of political and electoral realities. I cannot wave a magic wand and get everyone else in the nation to think and vote like I do, nor can the elected representatives I prefer wave magic wands of their own and implement the agenda I want.  Faced with the political reality of divided government, we cannot simply stand on principle at every juncture, ignoring that reality. On the other hand, we have principles for which we must stand. When to do which? How much of each? I certainly do not envy Speaker Boehner this difficult balancing act.

Here are the factual and ideological realities with which we are faced.

  • The revenue generated by tax increases in the bill won’t even put a dent in our deficit or debt. They are scored as bringing in an additional 1.7% of federal revenue over a decade. That is like trying to stop on onrushing locomotive by throwing a glass of water at it.
  • Even the predicted revenue may not materialize, as tax increases on the wealthy tend to slow economic growth. The wealthy create jobs; if you raise taxes on the kinds of job-creating investments and activities in which the wealthy engage, they’ll simply move their money to less productive investments. Human behavior is not static, but the CBO’s analysis is. We may very well experience slower growth as a result of this tax increase.
  • None of this fixes our real problem, which is the looming, economy-killing insolvency of our entitlement programs. This deal doesn’t raise enough revenue to cover the inevitable shortfalls—heck, it doesn’t even raise enough revenue to cover more than a couple of weeks of federal spending. This doesn’t reform entitlements at all, nor does it do much to decrease spending in other areas. Our entitlements are unsustainable, and we have yet to address those in any kind of serious way.

In this context, conservative and libertarian opposition to the deal is understandable.

On the other hand, we have the political realities with which we are faced.

  • The Republicans only control one half of one branch of government. Obama has the executive, and the Democrats have the other half of the legislative. The system the Founders set up for us make it difficult one faction to ram their agenda through even when they have greater control than the Republicans currently enjoy. There is only so much that Boehner and the GOP can do.
  • Obama was just reelected, and the Democrats expanded their numbers in the House and Senate. The media is militantly, and arguably malfeasantly, in the left’s camp. Republicans are in disarray at the moment. The climate is decidedly not GOP-friendly right now.
  • Polls show that a majority are not only okay with, but would like to see, tax increases on the wealthy. We would like to tell them that America’s wealthy already pay a greater share of the burden than in any other developed economy; that these increases won’t raise much revenue (if any, once the dynamic impact is taken into account); and that these increases may cost them their jobs. But a majority also just elected Obama to a second term. Reaching them with those points at this juncture looks like an uphill climb.

This bill doesn’t do much to fix our real problems, and it causes some problems of its own. At some point, Republicans are going to have to do more than simply slow the ship of state’s journey towards the abyss. At some point, they are going to have to take a stand, wrest the controls from those who would plunge us into that chasm, and turn the ship around.

As someone who tries to walk the fence—who looks to balance a strong sense of ideological purity with acceptance of political reality—I am open to the argument that this moment was not, and could not be, that moment. But that moment is coming. It must.

What that moment will look like, and how it will play out, is still unknown. Even when it comes, the harbingers may not be clear, and we may not know for sure that it is indeed the moment. The nation has a difficult road ahead. The GOP and Speaker Boehner have a difficult road ahead. There are those who seem completely sure that they know when it is time to stand on the purest of principle and when it is time to bow to political reality. I must say, I am compelled to envy that surety, for I do not feel it myself. And I do not envy Speaker Boehner for the difficult job he faces in trying to find that balance.

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