Republicans have either “won” or “failed the nation,” depending on which report you read today. It’s a Rorschach test for Republicans as they stare down the fiscal cliff.
The two views speak to an existential debate for the party as it seeks to rebound from November’s electoral loss and the growing possibility that party leaders will acquiesce to Democrats – at least for now – on the issue of tax rates.
Both arguments – one made by a mainstream journalist and the other by a conservative blogger – have more to do with the general state of politics than with the fiscal cliff, taxes and entitlements.
In the heat of talks and in the midst of potentially breaking a pledge to never allow tax rates to go up, many Republicans would see allowing them to go up as a loss.
But Major Garrett, writing in National Journal, pointed out that Republicans may have won a much larger battle: The way Democrats talk about taxes today is not unlike the way Republicans used to talk about them, he said.
Here’s Garrett’s argument, in a nutshell:
“In ways inconceivable to Republicans of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, Democrats have embraced almost all of their economic arguments about tax cuts. Back then, sizable swaths of the Democratic Party sought to protect higher tax rates for all. Many opposed President Reagan’s 1981 across-the-board tax cuts and the indexing of tax brackets for inflation. Many were skeptical of Reagan’s 1986 tax reform that consolidated 15 tax brackets into three and lowered the top marginal rate from 50 percent to 28 percent (with a “bubble rate” of 33 percent for some taxpayers). They despised the expanded child tax credit and marriage-penalty relief called for under the GOP’s Contract With America.
“Now all of that is embedded in Democratic economic theory and political strategy,” Garrett wrote, later adding, “The larger point is that Republicans are pushing on an open door on taxes. The GOP has won nine-tenths of the tax argument. It just hasn’t figured out what do with victory.”
One of the Republicans who might agree, at least to a point, with Garrett is Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, who was the among first Republicans lawmaker after the election to say he’d buck an anti-tax pledge signed by many in his party in the interest of working to pay down the debt. Chambliss has said he thinks the president is probably going to “get his way” this year. (A previous version of this post suggested Chambliss would accept higher rates for the wealthy. He has never said that.)
Related: Get the Latest on the Fiscal Cliff
Erick Erickson, the conservative publisher of the conservative website Redstate.com, has criticized Chambliss, his home-state senator, who faces re-election in 2014.
Where Garrett said Republicans had won most of the tax argument of the past 40 years, Erickson – who wants Republicans to hold the line on tax rates - said they’d been swallowed by their own arguments on the size of government. He would be one of the people Garrett said was “pushing on an open door.”
Erickson’s argument – beyond tax rates – is that the national debt under Republican budget proposals wouldn’t be much different than it would be under President Obama’s plan. Erickson wants Republican leaders to step aside.
“The present leadership of the Republican Party has gone from making the case that government is the problem and the American people are the solution to making the case that Democratic controlled government is the problem and Republican controlled government is the solution,” wrote Erickson.
“By giving up on making the case that government is the problem and pivoting to “Democrats are the problem,” the Republican Party has failed the American people. Historically, when parties lost, their leadership went and hid for an appropriate amount of time under a rock after an acceptance of blame and a resignation.”
House Speaker John Boehner is not going to resign as the Republican leader. He said Thursday he’s not worried about his job as speaker. His colleagues are expected to re-elect him to the post in early January.
Between now and then, Boehner may try to convince those same colleagues to accept a bitter-pill deal to avert the fiscal cliff. He’ll need to use the argument that Republicans have “won” if he is to stay immune from the view that they’ve “failed the American people.”