I’ll be blunt. Republicans are deluding ourselves if we think we won the fiscal cliff showdown. To the contrary, for Barack Obama to secure between 80 plus percent of the tax hikes he wanted (in fact, all but the tranche between $250,000-$400,000 that contains major parts of Obama’s brownstone-dwelling base in coastal metropolitan areas)--and to pull off such a coup without budging even a little on spending--is a rout. And I don’t challenge the drumbeat from even many conservatives that the upcoming debt ceiling vote is just as sure a loser given the impossible political optics of forcing a default.
To be sure, those of us on the right can murmur about the bias of a press establishment that overlooks Obama’s refusal to bargain (who is ignoring 47 percent of Americans now?). We can also play the game of blaming Tea Party congressmen who undercut John Boehner’s maneuvering room.
But it’s worth acknowledging a more fundamental reason that Obama can afford to be so heavy-handed. While Democrats have rallied around a straightforward theory of how they want to shape government—subsidize an ambitious spending regime and level what they view as an inequitable tax code—conservatives are struggling to forge a vision of our own. The agenda we offer at our rallies, of liberating job creators and reining in an oppressive bureaucracy, has simply not traveled well outside our base.
Nor have we met the test of specifics that might register with an electorate that distrusts vague promises—and that remembers how a decade of Republicans labeled themselves fiscal conservatives as deficits ballooned on their watch. We equivocate on reforms to Medicare that might check spiraling costs. We have a penchant for symbolic discretionary reductions that won’t put even a slight dent in the deficit. And we seem incapable of sorting out prudent defense cuts from foolish ones.
So, we match Obama’s fiscally reckless theory of outsized government with our own over-heated but un-detailed objections without the force of an alternative reform agenda. There is not a fraction of the public that can describe what a conservative vision of the public interest would really look like, much less how it would grow prosperity or boost families.
Obama is no magician, in fact, neither as consequential as our fears or his acolytes make him out to be. But we make him a winner--if only because you can’t beat something with nothing.