Thursday, December 20, 2012

A Third Way?

Since the fiscal cliff isn't actually real (it's a creation of an incompetent media who through ignorance or ill-intent push the framing that it is real), and I find going over the cliff to lead to better policy than anything being offered in a Grand Bargain by either party right now, I am hoping that we, for lack of a better phrase, go over the cliff. Human beings work with baselines and demonstrate a status quo bias. On January 1, 2013, a new baseline is established. And that baseline is a higher tax rate and a substantially reduced Pentagon budget. That's a baseline that is very advantageous for political reasons. The President doesn't seem to understand that, but the President is a negotiating idiot. Good at campaigns, terrible at negotiating.

This puts Speaker of the House John Boehner in a very tricky position. He really is screwed if we go over the cliff. He is also screwed if a deal is signed that does not have majority Republican support. However, I don't believe Boehner is in a position where he can offer ANY deal that a majority of Republicans would support. Other than the complete and utter disintegration of the federal government, no deal would prove to be satisfactory to the Tea-Partiers. The right wing has been taken over by lunatics who care not a wit about this country or its economy. They are ideologues who cannot be persuaded by reason, statistics, or comity. In short, they are hopeless and they will not vote for any deal, period. Remember, these are the same Republicans who refused to raise the debt ceiling under any conditions. Given these circumstances, most political pundits (including those I respect) seem to believe that Boehner and some moderate Republicans (they exist?) will need to forge a House compromise that will attract votes across the aisle (meaning moderate deficit-hawk Dems). In today's parliamentary style politics, this doesn't really happen anymore (I believe TARP in 2008 was the last occasion). The problem is, I find a bi-partisan compromise to be rather unlikely because I don't think Boehner would survive a speakership challenge within the Republican caucus if he brought that compromise to the floor for a vote. It would essentially end his speakerhood. The right-wing would go ape-shit and speaker-to-be Eric Cantor would rise in ascension. Why would Boehner take such a political risk? In short, he wouldn't. Forget the "for-the-good-of-the-country" nonsense. If we know anything about political actors, it's that they seldom, if ever, take steps that doom their political prospects. We all have an innate ability to rationalize our worst behavior, and politicians are no different. Boehner would willingly go over the cliff if it meant he kept his speakership. Ultimately, in his mind, the country is better off with John Boehner, Speaker of the House, then otherwise, even if it means a tax rate hike and massive spending cuts during a recession.

There is, however, a third option, one which I am a bit surprised has not yet been thrown out as a possibility by many political pundits. And that third option is the creation of a new caucus of moderate Republicans and Democrats (mostly Dems) who would forge a compromise on the "fiscal cliff," the upcoming debt ceiling, entitlement reform, and even (possibly) gun reform.

This would be a deal that would allow Boehner to keep his Speakership, allowing him to save both face and his political power. It would also clear the deck of the most pressing political agenda items. Now, don't get me wrong. I wouldn't like those compromises. But there is a very broad constituency of deficit hawks, entitlement reformers and tax-cutters in both parties. The executive branch as well. Not to mention the press. Good God, don't forget about the press. The press reaction would be orgiastic. The press demonstrates what I would describe as a radical centrism - the unwavering conviction that taxes must remain forever low, that defense spending must remain forever high (see the WaPo's embarrassing attack on Chuck Hagel) and that the poor and the elderly must sacrifice their social safety net. These preferences are idiomatic within the press corps. A new caucus of "centrist" Republicans and Democrats would be the greatest thing to happen the mainstream media in the history of modern American democracy. I'm not saying the newly created "Centrist" caucus would be enduring, but it would certainly be celebrated. John Boehner would be the patron saint of bipartisanship. Even if his speakership only lasted until the 2014 election, journalists would be writing paeans to Saint Boehner until the day I died. I guarantee you that. And who doesn't want to be the foci of epic poems and 600 page historic manuscripts. I know I want that and I all do is write this shitty blog.

Given the histrionic benefits of creating a centrist caucus, and the inevitability of a right-wing flank at some point in the Speaker's future, Boehner should really consider this option. Is the formation of a new party likely? Eh - Probably not. But I suspect the probability is not zero. In fact, if I was Boehner's staff and press team, I would be testing those waters. Hell, if I was the Obama administration (who embarrassingly seems to really believe in the necessity for a Grand Compromise), I would be floating trial balloons like mad. Will those trial balloons attract ire from the Tea-hadists? Of course. But they hate Boehner anyway. He really should be looking forward to the next phase of his career. And that phase just might be his tenure as the "Great Compromiser". Hell, more words have been written about lesser men.


  1. Well, it has happened before at the state level where the majority party loses out on the Speakership to a bipartisan centrist coalition. I'm thinking maybe it was Tennessee or something in the past few years where that happened.

  2. It's actually happening RIGHT NOW in NY, where a couple of terrible Democrats are caucusing with the Republicans in order to, essentially, share power in the NY State Senate (but nominally remaining in the hands of Republicans). The problem in the US House of Representatives, as Mancur Olsen would tell you, is collective organization. Convincing two or three Senators to caucus with the nominally minority party in NY is organizationally speaking, a LOT easier, than wrangling the 20-40 or so Republican moderates needed in the House to do the same. Those national Republicans also answer to, presumably, a much more Republican constituency, though I'm guessing some of those districts MUST be Obama districts.