Showdown at the Fiscal Cliff

By Frum, David | Newsweek, December 3, 2012 | Go to article overview

Showdown at the Fiscal Cliff


Frum, David, Newsweek


Byline: David Frum; David Frum is the author of the Newsweek eBook Why Romney Lost (And What the GOP Can Do About It).

In his standoff with the GOP, the president's packing heat.

Nobody sings the song of cooperation more sweetly than President Obama. But singing is a performance art, and this president is performing now.

At the end of the year, the Bush tax cuts expire. So does the payroll-tax holiday. Automatic spending cuts begin to bite. These preplanned events are known together as the "fiscal cliff."

How menacing is the fiscal cliff? Opinions differ. But here's a fact there's no differing over: Republicans are a lot more frightened of the fiscal cliff than Democrats.

That fact empowers President Obama. There's a saying, often attributed to Al Capone: "You get more with a kind word and a gun than with a kind word alone." The president has a gun in his hand. Avoiding a tumble over the fiscal cliff will require new rules signed by the president. If he doesn't sign, over we go.

The president has announced the price of his signature: Republicans must agree to tax increases on the wealthiest Americans. The reading eye tends to focus on the second half of that sentence: tax increases on the wealthiest Americans. It is, however, the first half of the sentence that carries the most potent political implications: Republicans must agree.

The president's most basic goal in these fiscal negotiations is not to extract more revenue from upper--income Americans, although obviously he'd like to do that too. His most basic goal is to force Republicans to forswear their famous no-new-taxes pledge.

That pledge is the tie that binds Republicans in Congress and Republicans in the country. Compel Republicans to recant that commitment and Republican unity suddenly dissolves. The discipline of their congressional caucus will break. Their base will rebel. Their leaders will quarrel with each other.

If a breach will so shock the Republican Party, why would Republicans ever agree to it? Here's where the president brandishes his gun--and his kind word.

During the election campaign, the president called for a tax increase on incomes over $250,000. As soon as he had gained reelection, however, he explained that he was not "wedded" to his number. Other Democrats have suggested a figure of $500,000. Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York has raised the bidding to $1 million. …

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