Man up, Democrats!

It's backwards language, but silly Lindsey Graham has a point: Dems must stop worrying and love the "fiscal cliff"

By Joan Walsh

Published December 12, 2012 12:45PM (EST)

             (Reuters/Samrang Pring)
(Reuters/Samrang Pring)

What's the connection between the November election, the "fiscal cliff" stalemate and Michigan's new anti-labor right-to-work legislation?

Well, obviously Democrats won the election, holding the White House, increasing their lead in the Senate and picking up seats in the House. But while some Republicans promised to commence soul-searching about why most Americans rejected their message, their right-wing flank, and the plutocrats who fund them, are only getting crazier. That leaves victorious Democrats looking for ways to placate them, instead of looking for ways to exercise their mandate. This seems wrong.

I mean, how do you explain the phenomenon of President Obama winning Michigan by 10 points, and the state GOP's very next political move is passing unpopular right-to-work legislation in a lame duck session, before they concede seats to Democrats (and some less crazy Republicans) in January? That flies in the face of the way the political system is supposed to work. The electorate speaks; their servants listen.

But instead, Gov. Rick Snyder, who once promised not to back right-wing right-to-work legislation, instead backed rushing it through, to applause from his friends at ALEC, Americans for Prosperity and the Koch brothers. The point is to slash wages as well as to defund an institutional pillar of the Democratic Party. No retreat, no surrender.

That's what it looks like Republicans are doing in Congress on the fiscal cliff. Even though a few pretend they're willing to consider tax-rate hikes as part of a deal, that's only in the context of demanding unconscionable entitlement cuts which are not only bad policy but hugely unpopular with voters. And those are the "reasonable" Republicans. Tea Partyers won't let House Speaker John Boehner make a deal that includes tax-rate hikes, for anything.

After what Boehner described as a "cordial" one-on-one meeting with the president, he submitted a "compromise" proposal that again included no tax-rate hikes. Maybe both sides are faking and real deals are being discussed behind closed doors, but I don't see how.

During the campaign, Obama said that he hoped his reelection would break the "fever" of right-wing intransigence that's impeded all political progress. It hasn't. Take Sen. Lindswy Graham, who was anointed "This Year's Maverick" by Robert Draper in the New York Times, in a fawning 2010 piece that depicted him as the last Senate's last true moderate, scourge of the Tea Party and potential ally to Obama and Senate Democrats. Here's just a snippet of Draper's tribute:

“Everything I’m doing now in terms of talking about climate, talking about immigration, talking about Gitmo is completely opposite of where the Tea Party movement’s at,” Graham said…"The problem with the Tea Party, I think it’s just unsustainable because they can never come up with a coherent vision for governing the country. It will die out.” Now he said, in a tone of casual lament: “We don’t have a lot of Reagan-type leaders in our party. Remember Ronald Reagan Democrats? I want a Republican that can attract Democrats.” Chortling, he added, “Ronald Reagan would have a hard time getting elected as a Republican today.”


Now Graham, fearing a Tea Party primary challenge, is leading the charge to use the debt-ceiling deadline to force budget cuts. Here's what he told Fox Tuesday:

In February or March you have to raise the debt ceiling. And I can tell you this, there is a hardening on the Republican side. We're not going to raise the debt ceiling. We're not going to let Obama borrow any more money or any American Congress borrow any more money until we fix this country from becoming Greece. That requires significant entitlement reform to save Social Security from bankruptcy and Medicare from bankruptcy.

He also condemned Obama for not "manning up" to join Republicans in destroying the Democratic legacy. Someone ought to "man up" – as in strengthen their spines with their own principles, which is I guess the gender-neutral version of the term – but it isn't the president.

Clearly, the fever hasn't broken, as Obama hoped. It's only claimed more victims. Obama and the Democrats should be prepared to go over the cliff, and then dare Republicans to make good on their debt-ceiling threats. If right-wingers had the example of Democrats hanging tough on the cliff deadline, they might not think they could bully them into a debt-ceiling compromise.

In the middle of this madness, people close to the White House keep floating potential "compromises" like the one Ezra Klein wrote about Friday, while they send mixed messages about their willingness to go over the cliff, as I wrote Monday. Last week Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner told CNBC the administration is "absolutely" prepared to go over the cliff if it can't get a deal on higher tax rates for the rich, while the White House was simultaneously warning Latino and African-American groups what a bad deal it would be for them if the cliff-triggered tax hikes and spending cuts took effect.

So should ardent Democrats be prepared to go over the cliff or fight it? The White House seems to be sending mixed messages.

Meanwhile, White House and congressional Democratic sources are telling the Huffington Post their potential fiscal cliff deals contain important stimulus measures, including extending unemployment insurance and some infrastructure spending. That's great, but who can imagine those things would survive any deal – or at least any deal that didn't do much more terrible things than those tiny fixes could fix? I'd be happy to be wrong about that, but I'm rarely wrong about the capacity of Republicans to impede what's good for the country.

I really do understand that the president can't face going over the so-called cliff and say, "Bring it on." Another president once said that, and he's now among the least popular in history. So I know the White House has to continue to publicly pursue a deal, and maybe privately too: Maybe there's something better within Obama's grasp, in terms of raising revenue, avoiding harmful spending cuts, and "reforming" entitlements, that none of us can see.

But I doubt it. And I am becoming more convinced that the best thing for the country is for us to go over the fiscal cliff, for fiscal reasons, for political reasons, but also for reasons that would benefit all Americans, in both parties. The Republican Party has already gone over the cliff, in terms of political sanity. It's starting to feel to me like Democrats have to do something radical and out of character to begin to yank them back. Continuing to play out the available forms of compromise only validates their craziness.

It accepts as reality what Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann have called the "asymmetrical polarization" of American politics – an anodyne term to describe an ugly reality by two centrists who are now considered beyond the pale – that is, way left – by news organizations: an example of the sickness they describe. Even after the president's November election results, it's only getting worse.

The idea that a stalemate that results in going over the cliff -- and then fixing its real problems, like the middle-class tax hike plus sharp spending cuts, when the Democrats have more strength in January -- would somehow doom President Obama's capacity to move on the rest of his legislative agenda seems crazy to me. He has no capacity to move on that agenda at all right now. Would it doom, say, immigration reform? I think it actually makes it more likely. Republicans ought to be pursuing immigration reform out of self-interest: If they don't reverse the trend of Latinos growing ever more fervently Democratic in each election cycle, they'll be residing in the Smithsonian with the Whigs, rather than in Congress.

Democrats winning not only the election but this showdown hastens the Republicans' reckoning with reality. Which is good for the country -- and even for Republicans.

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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