For the first part of New Year’s Day, I thought the far-left “Obama caved” crowd would take the prize for the most insane political faction of the day considering how, as soon as a deal was reached, they accused the president of capitulating to the Republicans, even though the deal was quite good given the alternatives. But then the House Republicans stepped onto the stage and posed a serious challenge to the insanity on the far-left by engaging in further sabotage and brinksmanship before finally voting to pass the deal.
So no, the “Obama caved” left wasn’t responsible for the only infuriating responses to the deal, but they were infuriating nevertheless because, after all, liberals are supposed to be the smart, rational ones. Sadly, that wasn’t the case. Again.
As soon as the deal was announced on New Year’s Eve, the far-left kneejerked into its predictable boilerplate apoplexy: calling for the president’s head with the scripted refrains of “He betrayed the left! IEEEEEE!” even though the fiscal cliff deal is mostly composed of a 4.6 percent tax hike on the top tax bracket returning it to the Clinton-era level, along with an extension of unemployment benefits for long-term jobless Americans, and $15 billion in spending cuts. $600 billion in revenue versus $15 billion in cuts. By the way, the $30 billion in unemployment benefits will result in $48.6 billion in economic growth, per Moody’s calculations. Good news and a good investment in the economy.
In addition, the payroll tax holiday will expire, and the estate tax will increase to 40 percent from the Bush-era 35 percent. This, evidently, is the president “caving” to the Republicans — the reversal of 20 years of Republican tax policy. The party that pledged to never raise taxes voted for a nearly 5 percent tax hike on the rich, while extending an import section of the social safety net for another year.
Now, I have a sense of what some on the left would’ve preferred, but, as usual, what the left wants and what’s politically achievable are often two different things, considering the intransigent congressional Republicans. It’s clear the Republicans would never have voted for the ideal liberal package. They came closer than ever before, but they’ll never break the zero barrier. Not these Republicans. They wanted Social Security and Medicare cuts. They wanted to renew all of the Bush tax cuts. They wanted severe spending cuts to everything except defense. Instead, the Republicans voted for practically no cuts at all, and a tax hike on earners who George W. Bush famously referred to as his “base.” $41 in revenue for every $1 in spending cuts. That’s exceptional.
Given the contentious eleventh-hour outcome, it’s safe to assume the Republicans wouldn’t accept any further demands, and we can assume that if the president had held out for the most liberal version of a deal, there wouldn’t have been a deal at all. Consequently we’d risk a recession; a Wall Street sell-off today; the loss of unemployment benefits for millions of Americans; and a 50% tax hike on the lowest bracket — workers earning $0-$8,700 per year. For reasonable liberals, this is totally unacceptable. Coincidentally this is exactly what the House Republicans were willing to risk. Once again, as with the Affordable Care Act, the characters farthest to the left have somehow met up with the characters farthest to the right. I joked on Twitter that perhaps the usual liberal suspects would revive the effort to team up with Grover Norquist to kill the bill.
Throughout the day, the same phrase popped up: the president continuously moved his “line in the sand.” Paul Krugman, who I generally admire, wrote, “He kept drawing lines in the sand, then erasing them and retreating to a new position.”
Two things about this. First, drawing a line in the sand is a negotiation tactic and not the ultimate expectation for a deal. Unless you’re a dictator. Negotiators draw a line in the sand in order to get their enemies as close to their position as possible, though obviously the Republicans, and especially the House variety, would never agree to everything the president or the left were demanding on that side of the line. Never. Second, Krugman also admitted that the president basically won the negotiation with many of the things he wanted. In response, John Aravosis wrote:
We got what you wanted, but you [Krugman] still feel we lost because you don’t like the way the President got what we wanted. What was wrong with the President’s approach, I ask? He caved on his promises, you say. But if the President caved on his promises, then how did we end up with what you wanted?
Negotiations are fluid affairs: chess-matches with fake-outs, gambits and uncertainty. If the president had drawn a line in the sand, the only thing left at the end would’ve been a really, really principled line in the sand. Everything else would’ve disintegrated.
This is one of the reasons why I strongly believe there are those on the left who would’ve screeched the same “Obama caved” gripe no matter what. Why? Peer-pressure and liberal cred. Because if they were to ever full-throatedly praise an Obama accomplishment, other liberals would shout them down as Obama-apologists and capitulators. Resistance is futile, and so forth. Admittedly, though, if the deal had included chained CPI on Social Security or cuts to Medicare, or an across-the-board renewal of the Bush tax cuts I probably would’ve lined up against the deal. But it turned out to be a far better result than I thought, and I honestly don’t care how the president got there at this point.
In the real world where there are real people coping with real problems, a deal was mandatory, as was a few concessions to the Republicans since they happen to control the House and nearly half of the Senate. If there was a whip count for everything the “Obama caved” liberals wanted, I’m happy to hear about it, but I don’t think it existed. It’s fine to try to push the president towards your personal legislative priorities, and the elimination of the chained CPI idea is probably a result of that effort, but liberal advocacy and activism shouldn’t include risking damage to the incomes and lives of the people who liberals are otherwise trying to help. That’s the same kind of sabotage and hostage-taking used by the congressional Republicans, and I don’t want any part of it.