Fiscal cliff follies: A little sympathy for John Boehner
December 21, 2012By Dick Polman
Did you see the story this week about how Lindsay Lohan trashed her trailer on the set of Scary Movie 5? Her antics came to mind when I heard the news about the batty House Republicans, about how, in yet another spasm of dysfunction, they conspired last night to trash the very notion of sane governance - thereby demonstrating, yet again, why most Americans view them with disdain.
Let's try to unpack what happened. House Speaker John Boehner, saddled with the most thankless job in Washington, was trying to mollify his tea-party troops. Faced with the fact that any year-end budget deal will require a tax hike on top-bracket Americans - a fact that President Obama has made abundantly clear, after having succesfully campaigned on it - Boehner had to find a way to woo his conservative rank and file. With a teensy dollop of reality.
So rather than accept Obama's latest offer - to hike taxes on Americans earning more than $400,000 a year - Boehner concocted a "Plan B" that would indeed hike taxes, but only on Americans earning a million bucks or more. However, the millionaires' pain would be mitigated by all kinds of GOP-style goodies: lower rates on dividends, inheritances, and capital gains. Plus, Plan B envisioned that the goodies would be paid for by slashing federal payments to America's most impoverished families (big surprise). Surely Boehner could sell this plan to the tea-partying troops, right? As a way to unify the party and put pressure on Obama, right?
Wrong. As Republican strategist John Weaver tweeted in disgust last night, Boehner's job is akin to "herding cats on crack."
The cats went bonkers. They humiliated Boehner by spurning Plan B; knowing he would lose, Boehner didn't even bring it up for a vote. And care to guess why the cats balked? Because the plan contained (gasp) a tax hike. And as we all know, conservative purists have pledged to never ever under any circumstances endorse a tax hike for anyone. (Boehner's Plan B spectacle was meaningless, anyway. Even if Boehner had managed to whip his troops into line, the Democratic Senate would never have supported it; and even if the Senate had done so, Obama would have vetoed it.) And now they're all home for the holidays.
What we witnessed last night, in other words, was the most vivid evidence yet of the destructive power of Republican extremism. Boehner deserves a little sympathy (or not). He's a mainstream country-club Republican who, given his druthers, would cut a budget deal with Obama (the two guys were reportedly close to a deal last weekend), and then repair to the golf course for 18 holes, a glass of wine, and a cigarette. But he's stuck with his ideological crackheads. They are impervious to reality.
Economic reality aside, they are impervious to the political facts of life. Obama won decisively after campaigning for tax hikes on people earning $250,000 or more. House Democrats won the aggregate popular vote by roughly one million. Senate Democrats won the aggregate popular vote by roughly ten million. Obama's current job approval rating in the Gallup poll stands at 56 percent, his highest since October '09. His favorability rating in the fiscal cliff talks is 48 percent (with 43 percent disapproval); by contrast, the House GOP's favorabiity rating in the fiscal cliff talks is 29 percent (with 61 percent disapproval). Landslide majorities say that higher taxes on top-bracket Americans are necessary, in order to help tame the deficit. Republicans lost this year in part because they were too closely identified with the rich. And all the polls say that if we do go over the cliff, Republicans will get the brunt of the blame.
And yet, last night, they refused to budge from their bubble. How come? Why are Boehner's troops so incapable of acting in the public interest? Why are they so hostile to compromise, a 200-year tradition which compels our elected leaders to accept half a loaf for the greater good of governance?
Some of the ideologues sincerely believe that compromise is wrong. But, even worse, many of them are simply terrified of losing their seats. Because if they had supported Plan B, or if they support Boehner in any future budget deal he might cut with Obama (a deal that would include a tax hike), they fear that somebody on the far right will challenge them in a Republican primary back home.
And that threat is real. Boehner's Plan B, with its timid, loophole-infested tax hike on millionaires, was way too liberal for the right-wing groups like Club for Growth. Indeed, the Club spread the word, on the eve of last night's fiasco, that any House Republican who supported B would reap the whirlwind in 2014. In the words of Club official Barney Keller, "One thing we've found is that the only thing that motivates members of Congress is fear of losing their jobs, and that's the stick we try to use."
So there you have it - a minority party in hock to its extremist elements, oblivious to the election results and public opinion, and exhibiting all the cognitive sanity of a drunk driving into a tree. There's still time for a salvage operation - for instance, Obama and the Senate (with Mitch McConnell on board) could cobble something together and somehow shove it through the House - but the short-term damage has been done. One lame-duck Republican congressman, Steve LaTourette of Ohio, said it best last night, telling NBC: "It's unbelievable, this is horrible. I'm angry, I'm sad for my friend the speaker, and I'm sorry for the country. We deserve better."
True that. But we won't get better unless or until the GOP stops trashing our trailer.
Speaking of extremism: This morning, the NRA summoned reporters to a news conference about the Newtown massacre. Leader Wayne LaPierre delivered a long speech/rant about how our teachers need to lock & load - yet he refused to take any questions from the summoned reporters. That says it all.
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