Thomas F. Schaller
12:24 PM CST, December 11, 2012
The most ironic part of the partisan fight over the "fiscal cliff" is that, if Republicans want Barack Obama to act according to Republican principles, they should encourage the president to do nothing and simply let the country — and the Republicans — go over the cliff on Jan. 1.
Doing so would be bad for the American economy. Many economists believe the coupling of massive spending cuts and simultaneous expiration of income, payroll, earned-income and alternative minimum tax breaks could plunge the U.S. economy into a recession after four years of digging out of the last one.
But why should Republicans care? They can blame the ensuing economic pain on President Obama and the Democrats. It's the GOP's modus operandi, after all: please its plutocratic sponsors by enacting policies harmful to the middle class, and then blame-shift the economic and fiscal problems on those business-unfriendly Democrats and a mythical socialism that never seems to deliver income equality. It's a neat trick, if you pull it off.
The problem is that public opinion has finally caught up with the Republicans. A Washington Post/Pew Research Center poll released last week shows that Americans blame Republicans over Mr. Obama for the fiscal cliff by almost a 2 to 1 margin. According to the right-leaning Rasmussen Reports' tracking of the generic congressional ballot, in the month since the 2012 election, Democrats have improved from dead even to an 11-point margin over the Republicans. Americans have realized that Republicans can't be trusted on fiscal matters.
The 2010 tea party revolution began to pull back the curtain on the GOP's fiscal legerdemain. House Republicans swept into power on what they wanted us to believe was some sort of organic, grass-roots citizen movement; of course, we later learned it was secretly financed by corporate bigwigs like the Koch brothers. Once tea party Republicans assumed power, the hostage-taking began, starting with Speaker John Boehner.
Armed with author Amity Shlaes' "proof" that the New Deal's Keynesian approach didn't work (she's wrong; it did), and despite their usual disdain for the policies of European governments, tea party Republicans championed austerity measures oddly similar to those being adopted, with no success, across the Atlantic. They screamed about the rise in federal spending as a share of gross domestic product, conveniently ignoring two uncomfortable facts.
First, even if Mr. Obama's budgets were the same size as his predecessor's — granted, they are bigger — spending as a percentage of GDP would still have risen because the economy shrank fully 4 percent in the final 15 months of George Bush's presidency. GDP, after all, is the divisor in spending-per-GDP. And, second, thanks to the Bush-era tax cuts and the severe economic retraction, by 2010 revenues as a share of GDP had reached a 60-year low — again, despite a shrinking GDP divisor, which would make revenues-per-GDP rise, all else equal.
The same party that helped blow open a giant hole in the budget was now posing as fiscal saviors.
But then Speaker Boehner and the self-deluding House GOP decided to hold the full faith and credit of the United States Treasury hostage unless Congress and President Obama caved to their austerity-mania. Although Republicans never opposed the repeated debt ceiling increases requested by President Ronald Reagan or either President Bush, in August 2011 they suddenly demanded draconian, across-the-board spending cuts starting January 1, 2013 — at the very moment all the aforementioned tax benefits are set to expire.
In the past, the GOP deftly masked its fiscal failures. Republicans blamed the sharp rise in Bush-era deficits on the Sept. 11 attacks and the ensuing wars. They continue to blame the Obama administration entirely for debts that accrued during the past four years — even though, as I have explained in this space previously, for every two dollars in Obama policy debt racked up since 2009, there have been five dollars in debts attributed to ongoing costs of Bush administration policies.
Well, it's now payback time for congressional Republicans. They own the phony 2011 debt ceiling crisis, and they own the fiscal cliff they demanded in exchange for ending that phony crisis. The GOP's fiscal bill has finally come due.
Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears every other Wednesday. His email is email@example.com. Twitter: @schaller67.