With Obama on Vacation, Conservatives Brace for Cliff

Last week, President Barack Obama left for his Christmas vacation, effectively ending negotiations towards a deal on the "fiscal cliff" before new tax hikes and spending cuts take effect on January 1. Now conservatives who derailed Speaker of the House John Boehner's "Plan B" proposal for tax hikes on millionaires last week--a plan Democrats would not support anyway--are steeling Republicans to face the political consequences.

The Hill reports that conservative organizations such as Club for Growth are encouraging Republicans to look beyond poll data that suggests the public blames them, and to see the fiscal cliff as a bigger loss for Obama:

“I think Obama is very mindful of his legacy and is horrified of going over the cliff,” said Andy Roth of the Club for Growth. “Going over the cliff might be a signal that needs to be sent to the president, that he needs to play ball.”

That analysis not only defies the polls, but Obama's own assessment of the political fallout. Politico reports that Obama has approached the "fiscal cliff" with new swagger, confident that his legacy has been secured by his re-election rather than any policy outcomes before or since. He is determined to present a tougher face than the supposedly compromising posture that liberals and the media believe he struck in previous talks.

As conservatives see it, however, Obama has been far too rigid--uninterested in compromise and unwilling to reach a deal on the major issues that have defined his presidency. From the stimulus of February 2009, where he rejected Republican suggestions on the grounds that "I won"; to the health care debate a year later, where he made only a perfunctory attempt to listen to GOP suggestions and pushed the bill through anyway; to the debt ceiling talks of July 2011, when he torpedoed a "grand bargain" by asking for tax hikes on the wealthy; and now to the all but failed "fiscal cliff" talks, Obama has left opponents no political choice but to say no.

Looking at his negotiating strategy over the past four years, two consistent themes emerge: 1. a lack of personal engagement in talks; 2. a desire to achieve a dominant political win at the cost of a deal itself. The supposed weakness much bewailed by the left is not driven by a desire to reach national consensus but merely Obama's lack of interest in policy details. Obama wants a big political win, not a small policy win, with his eye on the larger goal of ideological victory, once his political foes are too weakened to offer much resistance.

For Republicans, that means the "fiscal cliff" talks, like other negotiations with Obama, have primarily become about political survival. Opposition to higher taxes is one of the few remaining points of consensus and clarity in a fractured and dispirited GOP coalition. That is why many conservatives made it clear they would neither tolerate or endorse any vote to increase tax rates, even if that means taxes will rise by default in 2013. Caving on that essential point might keep tax rates somewhat lower, but at the cost of voters' trust in the GOP itself.

With the media essentially offering Obama a pass, and allowing him to delegate responsibility for "fiscal cliff" talks to no one in particular, it is increasingly clear that both parties may not be jumping off the metaphorical cliff together, but that Republicans may be taking the dive alone. Some conservatives argue that the short-term cost in terms of public opinion will be worth the gain of remaining true to the party's pledge to its voters, and that Obama will ultimately bear responsibility for the economic consequences. Whether that is true or not remains to be seen; in a rudderless, leaderless country, fealty to principle may be what is most needed.


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