But who elected these miscreants?
It doesn’t take a political science genius to understand politicians’ behavior. There’s but a single explanatory factor: winning elections. That means following voter wishes.
So why doesn’t the fiscal cliff deal tackle spending? Don’t voters want that? Oh, yes, absolutely they do, just so long as you don’t cut Social Security or Medicare or education or farm programs or defense or, well, anything, except of course for foreign aid. (On which the average American thinks we should spend no more than 10%. In fact it’s less than 1%.)
Republicans, especially Tea Partiers, really really want spending cuts. But just ask exactly what to cut, besides Big Bird (0.014% of the budget). And just whisper a suggestion and you get the campaign ads with granny shoved over a cliff. Of course Republicans don’t want to hand Democrats this nuclear weapon. What they’d like is for Democrats to disarm by joining them in the spending cuts. But any Democrat doing that would get the granny-over-the-cliff ad himself in his own next primary.
We imagined that Republicans would make a deal with President Obama, agreeing to higher taxes for the rich in exchange for spending cuts. How foolishly naïve. We forgot the nuclear weapon. We forgot that whereas soaking the rich is popular, cutting spending risks granny-over-the-cliff ads and political annihilation. So what we got was soak-the-rich and nothing on spending.
Why did Republicans agree? In the end, instead of trading off soak-the-rich taxes for spending cuts, they were forced to swallow the tax hikes merely in exchange for avoiding even bigger tax hikes.
The New York Times editorially labeled this a big payoff for Republicans, rewarding their “intransigence”! The Times fulminated that the rich aren’t being soaked enough – while saying hardly a word about spending – nor noting that under this deal, deficits will continue to balloon – or that no conceivable level of taxes on the rich could close that gap.
Devotees of this blog may recall how accurately I foresaw this outcome. The Democrats did get their Great White Whale, with Bush’s tax cuts terminated for high incomes. And the argument over spending can seemingly continue. I say “seemingly” because for all the sturm-und-drang, nothing serious will be done about spending because Republicans have now squandered their biggest bargaining chip. Any further blackmail they might attempt would be seen as just that, blackmail, politically suicidal.
I hope President Obama enjoys his whale meat. He might have exercised responsible leadership. He might have forced Democrats to accept the need for spending action, as a trade-off for the tax increases they craved. This fiscal cliff moment was actually a grand opportunity for him to achieve something meaningful – just like Simpson-Bowles – the opportunity he missed earlier. But instead of seizing the moment, the President chose the easy, expedient thing, to pocket the cheap “victory.”
History will write that Obama’s eight years mark the time when America might have saved itself, but didn’t. We may have survived this recent little cliff, but we’re running straight down the track toward a far bigger one, of economic ruin, with clearly now no hand on the throttle.
And if you want to find the real culprit to blame, dear voter, look in the mirror.