Barack Obama’s Problem: Fanatic Republicans and Mushball Democrats

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A lot of people—including me—have argued that President Obama would be better off letting the country sail over the fiscal cliff, at least for a little while. After all, right now tax rates are at low Bush-era levels, so the argument is all about whose taxes will go up. But after January 1, tax rates automatically go up to Clinton-era levels, so the argument suddenly becomes about whose taxes will go down. That’s much more fertile ground for an Obama-friendly compromise.

That’s the theory, anyway. Today, though, after watching Sen. Kent Conrad (D–ND) publicly cave in on taxes on national TV with virtually no prompting at all, Ezra Klein suggests that Obama’s leverage on January 1 might not be as strong as we think:

There are good theoretical arguments that the fiscal cliff’s tax hikes gives Democrats the bulk of the leverage, but the White House has watched Senate Democrats fold on taxes again and again and again. They worry that if we go over the fiscal cliff, skittish Senate Democrats will quickly fold before some House-passed plan that raises taxes on income over $750,000, does nothing on stimulus, and sets up a debt-ceiling fight for early next year. The White House thinks it’ll be very difficult for them to veto anything Senate Democrats agree to, and so they would prefer to strike the deal themselves rather than getting into a situation where vulnerable Senate Democrats could strike a deal on their behalf.

It turns out that Conrad told Chris Wallace, after literally seconds of badgering, that his ideal compromise would split the difference between Obama’s latest proposal and John Boehner’s latest proposal. This would produce a plan with more spending cuts than tax hikes, even though Boehner has already publicly agreed to a 1:1 split. If Conrad is willing to give Boehner more than he asked for without any pressure at all, what are the odds that he and his fellow centrists in the Senate would be willing to hold out for more than a few minutes during a real negotiation with the anti-tax zealots in the Republican Party?

Plenty of people have questioned Obama’s negotiating skills over the years, and not without cause. But when you’re dealing with fanatics in the other party and mushballs in your own, it makes things pretty tough. That’s the reality Obama has to deal with.

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