Friday, January 11, 2013

Unusual Praise

Obviously, I tend to be pretty negative about our policy-makers. Frankly, I think their priorities are wrong, their motivations are skewed and the result is that they make bad decisions. They are not stupid, in fact they are quite smart and act in a perfectly rational, expected manner. They do exactly the things that are most likely to get them re-elected...

So, amongst all of the Fiscal Cliff mess, I do think it is worth highlighting what I consider to be the admirable actions of two different people who didn't get universal praise. I don't want to gloss over their lead roles in creating this mess, but I do think they acted like adults and made legitimate efforts to reach a significant deal.

The first, and more obvious of the two, is President Obama. He won a pretty resounding victory in November, and he rightfully took that to be an endorsement of his basic position that income taxes should rise on the wealthiest taxpayers. Sure, his definition changes from time to time...but the overall message was pretty clear: any deficit reduction done through tax increases should come disproportionately out of the pockets of the highest earners.

He did not, however, stick obstinately to that as an exclusive solution. He certainly argued for a lower threshold of "wealthy", but he was flexible on that, and was flexible on using at least some combination of increased rates and fewer deductions (although they spent way too much time fighting over that, which is a completely useless fight.) He also took an admirably open approach to entitlement reform, offering to accept significant cuts to current and future benefits.

The other, who has gotten nothing but grief over the whole thing, is John Boehner. Like the President, I really feel like he approached this with an open mind and a willingness to make a deal. Right off the bat he openly acknowledged and accepted tax increases targeted at the wealthy...basically a Republican sacrilege. He wanted a heavier emphasis on spending cuts as opposed to tax increases...but he and the President basically agreed that they would increase revenues and cut spending, and were just kind of arguing over the mix of those.

In other words, they did something really unexpected, recognized that each served a constituency, and decided to meet somewhere in the middle. Crazy, I know...

Even more importantly, they gave each of their own parties the political cover necessary to disappoint their followers. Obama was willing to be the Democratic fall guy on entitlement cuts, and Boehner was willing to take the Republican arrows on tax increases...they were doing (or at least trying to do) what leaders should do: making it easier for their followers to do the right thing. Giving everyone who followed them the ability to tell their supporters "I didn't love the bill, but it was the best that he could get, so I had to reluctantly support it."

The problem seemed to arise because House Republicans didn't take Boehner up on that offer. They are all so tied into their "No tax increase" pledges that they wouldn't vote for a single, relatively small tax increase in exchange for some real spending cuts, even after the Speaker gave them as much cover to do so as possible. Partly, I have to recognize that it is a lot easier for Democrats to blame entitlement cuts on the very visible leader of the free world, and somewhat harder for Republicans to blame their broken pledge on a much-less-well-known Congressman from Ohio. But there is another part that was just their own desire to not have to actually articulate why they changed their mind on their absurd pledge. It was easier to let rates rise by going over the cliff, and then vote to roll back the ones they wanted to keep (therefore maintaining their ability to say that they never voted to raise taxes, get it?)

So, ultimately, Boehner couldn't get the House GOP to follow him and the whole plan collapsed. Ironically, they GOP would have gotten a much better deal had they gone along with him, but that was never going to work for them, I guess. But, in a fair analysis, I think his intentions were good, and I do think he tried to be the reasonable one.

It's rare that they act like adults, but I feel like both the Speaker and the President were at least trying.

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