On Counterinsurgency and Negotiating the Fiscal Cliff

Why are Republicans so bad at the game of negotiations? Consider a thought experiment: What if, the moment President Obama months ago suggested that he wanted to continue the Bush tax cuts for 98 percent of taxpayers, Speaker Boehner had rushed to the floor with a bill that did just that and only that, seizing an opportunity for agreement that the entire middle class ought to have those tax cuts remain, permanently? The president probably would’ve balked at it – he wants additional deals on the debt ceiling and other matters included in this, and he wants Republican cover on all of them. But had Boehner done so, it would today be Obama, not the Speaker, who would’ve been holding up middle class tax cuts. That would’ve been tenuous ground. Obama might even have signed it. After which Boehner and his Republican allies in the House could move to the next part of the argument: lowering taxes on job creators.

 The way to win in this scenario is not by playing the expected conventional game, which puts Republicans in a position where they won’t raise taxes for millionaires unless you also cut entitlements for old people. It’s a frame that is predictable, irritating, and obvious (“Like setting Julie Andrews on fire!”). But with a few exceptions, Republican negotiators seem content to approach the fiscal cliff deploying the same conventional strategies they did before.

The wiser approach would be to view this as an opportunity to apply basic COIN lessons to domestic politics: isolate the opposition from their base of support, clear areas before you advance, and present a unified message to the populace. (In all three aspects, the Republican leadership continues to fail with regularity.) The point is, letting Obama have that “win” by raising taxes on job creators doesn’t do anything to solve the nation’s fiscal problems.  

“Don’t confuse U.S. President Barack Obama’s “tax fairness” with real revenue. “About three-quarters of the revenue loss from the Bush tax cuts came from everything below the top two brackets,” said Michael Darda, chief economist at MKM Partners LLC in Stamford, Connecticut.

You mean, from the cherished middle class?

Yes, the very same middle class Obama says it’s his mandate to protect.”

They’re going to have to come back at this apple eventually – higher taxes on rich people are, for Obama, a moral issue, not a fiscal one. Republicans seem dedicated to protecting his ability to make the case it’s the latter.

This essay was adapted from The Transom, a daily email newsletter for political and media insiders, collecting news, notes, and thoughts from around the web.

  1. Butters

    What if, the moment President Obama months ago suggested that he wanted to continue the Bush tax cuts for 98 percent of taxpayers, Speaker Boehner had rushed to the floor with a bill that did just that and only that, seizing an opportunity for agreement that the entire middle class ought to have those tax cuts remain, permanently?

    Ben, is there any reason Boehner can’t still do this?

    The trump card is that Obama doesn’t want what he is advocating to pass, because then he will own the consequences and can’t blame others.

    GOP should extend the upper/lower rates as separate bills. No pledges broken, but acknowledges the reality of divided government.

  2. mask

    The GOP should make this simple offer: We’ll let you have whatever taxation you want as long as the annual budget is balanced.

    Follow Mark Steyn’s lead – if Democrats want European sized governments then make the people pay for it.

  3. Kelly B
    Ningrim

    What if, the moment President Obama months ago suggested that he wanted to continue the Bush tax cuts for 98 percent of taxpayers, Speaker Boehner had rushed to the floor with a bill that did just that and only that, seizing an opportunity for agreement that the entire middle class ought to have those tax cuts remain, permanently?

    Ben, is there any reason Boehner can’t still do this?

    The trump card is that Obama doesn’t want what he is advocating to pass, because then he will own the consequences and can’t blame others.

    GOP should extend the upper/lower rates as separate bills. No pledges broken, but acknowledges the reality of divided government. · 33 minutes ago

    Edited 22 minutes ago

    I love this idea and was surprised yesterday to see Byron York mention on Twitter that various GOP congress types thought it was “too cute” to try.  Why???  They hold to their values and force the President and Dems to make the tax increases their own.

  4. Barfly

    Well, two obvious (and interrelated) factors are the state of public awareness and the bias of the media. If Boehner did as you suggest the President would of course balk, giving some vacuous reason why his package is the only acceptable solution. The media would defend him and excoriate the Republican proposal, and the majority of the ignorant would buy it.

    But I think another factor is just as significant, and it’s the reason why the GOP is so incredibly ineffective at countering the President and his media arm. Boehner and our other Congressional leaders are beholden to a very broad spectrum of Republican support, that ranges from Norquist and the Tea Party on one hand to Romney supporters (real ones, not just the nowhere-else-to-go like me) on the other. This is why the party can’t act as you suggest, and why it cannot vigorously make a consistent case for limited government or fiscal responsibility.

    Ben, let me ask you this: Let’s assume the Congressional leadership is intelligent and rational, and regularly picks the optimal course in light of their own best interest, broadly defined. What is then implied by their actions?

  5. Miffed White Male
    mask: The GOP should make this simple offer: We’ll let you have whatever taxation you want as long as the annual budget is balanced.

    This is pure genius.  No more of the “let’s raise rates now, balance the budget in 15 years if all the scenarios we dream up turn out exactly right” stuff.

    I hate, loathe and despise the “give them the rate increase on the top 2%, re-lower the rates on the 98% after January 1st” crowd. 

    If we’re going to raise taxes, raise them on EVERYBODY.  People want government services, let them pay for them.  We’re all in this together, right?  If the top 2% are going to pay for everything, we can’t turn around and complain when the rich “buy elections”, can we?

     

  6. Bereket Kelile

    Reading about the strategies that the GOP can take makes me wanna read the Art of War-or a Game Theory textbook. 

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