Fiscal cliff politics

We've all become cliff dwellers, clinging to the rocky face while, above us, President Obama and Congressional Republicans are locked in an embrace heading toward the precipice which will plunge them - and us - into... just what exactly?

Well, depends whose prediction you're willing to accept.

There are those who are convinced the fiscal cliff issue is a manufactured crisis, constructed by liberals and aided by a compliant media to scare the bejesus out of Americans and convince them that their only salvation lies in increasing taxes on the most wealthy among us. It's at most a fiscal speed bump, not a cliff, they say.

On the other side is the body of opinion which holds that, unless a deal is struck, taxes will go up automatically on Jan. 1, taking more money out of the pockets of all Americans - money which consumers would normally spend on goods and services and continue to help the nation's economic recovery.

The higher taxes, combined with some $500 billion in automatic across the board cuts in government spending will produce a severe recession from which it take could years to recover, they say.

President Obama doesn't want what Congressional Republicans want and they don't want what he wants, turning the entire situation into a public relations war rather than a sober, good faith effort to negotiate a settlement.

Both sides have decided that the struggle for hearts and minds can best be carried out on Sunday morning television talk shows, repeating the same stale, hackneyed talking points which, in truth, only reinforce the public perception of governmental insincerity and ineptitude, a theater of the absurd acted out by individuals who don't give a damn about the effect on the audience.

The president has succeeded in framing the debate around his belief that wealthy Americans - the top two per cent of wage earners - should pay more in income taxes while characterizing Republican opponents as fighting to the death to protect the rich and curb spending by chipping away at Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid - programs which disproportionately benefit low and middle income individuals.

For Republicans, it's been a losing hand so far. Even conservative leader Bill Kristol, giving vent to his frustration, said raising taxes on multi-millionaires - most of whom were Obama donors and supporters in any event - wasn't such a bad idea and Republicans wouldn't be punished for agreeing to it.

While there is an anti-tax strand in the DNA of many Republicans in Congress, there is an equally powerful political survival strand as well, one which signals that refusing to act and allowing taxes to increase on all Americans threatens that survival.

It is on this easily understood point that the President's argument hinges. The decision is in Republican hands whether to extend tax cuts for 98 per cent of Americans or allow them to rise while safeguarding the personal wealth of the remaining two per cent.

Republicans are certainly correct in criticizing the President for his refusal to come to grips in any significant way with the need to cut spending as well as implement critically needed changes in the so-called entitlement programs to assure their long term survival.

They deserve credit as well for their openness to increasing revenues largely through revisions in the tax code to limit or eliminate deductions, rather than through a rate increase.

But, by continuing to include as a significant part of their proposal some $600 billion in reductions in entitlement programs, Republicans are playing into Obama's hands and giving him repeated opportunities to relentlessly drive his wealthy-versus- the-rest-of-us argument.

National polls have been unanimous in popular support for requiring the wealthy to pay more and the President and his surrogates in the Congress have made the point repeatedly that the presidential campaign was fought in large measure on that premise and that Obama won both the election and the argument.

Republican reaction to the President's initial proposal to raise taxes, spend billions on a stimulus package, give him the authority to raise the national debt ceiling without Congressional approval and promise to consider spending cuts at some vague, undefined point in the future was understandable outrage.

A more appropriate and politically wise response would have been to say, okay, keep the tax cuts for 98 per cent of Americans, raise the rates on the wealthy to pre-George Bush levels, no stimulus, no debt ceiling giveaway, and declare victory by pledging to take up spending cuts and entitlement reform after returning from enjoying the holidays.

As the year draws to a close the eventual outcome may, indeed, come down to something similar.

In the meantime, all us cliff dwellers will dig our fingernails in a little deeper in the crevices of the rock face and keep our eyes turned upward at the dance taking place at the cliff's edge.

Copyright 2012 Carl Golden, distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate. Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.

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