Republicans are using the fiscal cliff to extract payback for all the "gifts" President Obama has given to Americans.
Before Americans have even finished digesting their Thanksgiving turkey, the holiday shopping season will have officially begun. But according to Mitt Romney, Christmas came early for those who voted for Barack Obama. The failed Republican presidential nominee and latter-day Scrooge told donors last week that President Obama had won reelection by “giving targeted groups a big gift.” And what generous stocking-stuffers they were! For the young and the poor, health coverage under the Affordable Care Act. For Hispanics, an executive order halting deportation of the children of undocumented immigrants. For women, free contraception for use in all their filthy lady activities. If Malia and Sasha don’t find a pair of baby unicorns under the White House Christmas tree this year, they have a right to feel jealous.
Romney’s comments met with disapproval from fellow Republicans who hope to have a future in elective office, but the truth is that they reflect an understanding of the American public and its relationship with government that is widely shared among conservatives. Paul Waldman argues that it fits right in with their “makers vs. takers” ideology, the notion that the country is divided between “the brave individualists needing nothing from anyone, and the blood-sucking parasites who rely on government.” But Republicans don’t just want to reset policy to some sort of neutral state where everyone gives and receives his or her fair share (slow down there, Karl Marx). Instead, they seem to view the fiscal cliff as an opportunity to impose austerity measures that would redistribute the gifts to their Nice List and punish those who have been spoiled by Obama’s socialist Santa.
The fiscal cliff is in fact better described as an “austerity bomb,” a term coined by TPM’s Brian Beutler and echoed by Paul Krugman. Despite what the cliff terminology might suggest, the problem isn’t that the federal deficit is about to explode, but that conservatives who have spent years demanding swift and substantial deficit reduction are about to get exactly what they wanted. If this mix of scheduled tax increases and spending cuts is allowed to take effect, it will carve $560 billion out of the budget next year – so why are deficit scolds suddenly terrified of the consequences? Krugman argues that they’re implicitly conceding that “Keynesians were right all along, that slashing spending and raising taxes on ordinary workers is destructive in a depressed economy, and that we should actually be doing the opposite.”
But are Republicans really worried about the plight of the working man? You wouldn’t know it based on the alternatives they’ve proposed, which involve swapping one set of austerity measures for a slightly different set of austerity measures. Their real concern is what the fiscal cliff will mean for their friends and supporters, not what it will mean for the broader economy. Sure, the poor will take the hit first, as is their lot in life, but taxes will go up on rich people, too! That’s money coming straight out of the 2014 campaign coffers. And what about those poor defense contractors who will suffer from cuts to the Pentagon’s budget? They have mouths to feed, too.
The terms that Republicans have set for the fiscal cliff negotiations provide clear evidence of this favoritism. Chastened by President Obama’s reelection, they keep claiming they’re open to compromise, but they steadfastly refuse to raise tax rates on the rich. Instead, they insist any new revenue must come from “closing loopholes,” a hoary Beltway cliché that means nothing in particular, and they’ll only concede that much if Democrats agree to “reform entitlements,” which is even less specific but more ominous. Oh, and they also want “changes” to the Affordable Care Act to be on the table. In fact, if Barack Obama would just go ahead and resign from office, it would be a real show of good faith and bipartisan spirit.
Proposing to cut Social Security benefits or raise the retirement age as part of a fiscal cliff deal is a non sequitur at best. With all due respect to financial masterminds like Lloyd Blankfein, it’s hard to believe that anyone could be told that Congress is about to pull the rug out from under the fragile recovery and honestly conclude that the solution is to make old people work longer. It’s the equivalent of the president being told that we’re on the verge of nuclear war and replying, “I’ll have the soup.” As Jeff Madrick has explained at length, Social Security is not in crisis, and there are plenty of easy fixes available for its future financial shortfall. (Medicare is a thornier problem, but one that probably shouldn’t be dealt with on a timer.) Senator Mark Begich, for instance, has proposed to cover the gap and pay for more generous benefits by eliminating the payroll tax cap. But don’t expect that plan to be taken very seriously by the Very Serious People, because it asks the rich to sacrifice more instead of inflicting some character-building pain on everyone else.
Aside from being unnecessary, such cuts would have a disproportionate impact on the poor. The right’s claim that Social Security wasn’t designed to handle increased life expectancies is based on a serious misunderstanding of history and human biology, but it is true that life expectancy has risen dramatically – for the rich. Workers on the lower rungs of the economic ladder haven’t been so lucky, so a higher retirement age is just a massive benefit cut for them. Of course, any such changes would only be phased in for younger workers, who (purely coincidentally) don’t vote Republican, not current retirees who do. That will teach those spoiled little punks. Er, I mean, preserve the promise of Social Security for future generations.
The same logic, if you can call it that, applies to demanding changes to the Affordable Care Act. The current law will save $109 billion over the next 10 years, so in theory, the deficit hawks should love it, right? Well, there are two problems with that theory. The first is that those cost savings are based on CBO projections, which, like Nate Silver’s electoral analysis, fall into that category of “liberal math” that Republicans find inherently suspect. The other is that the ACA achieves those savings while helping poor people -- that’s what makes it a gift, according to Romney. But deficit reduction isn’t supposed to make life easier; it’s supposed to be tough love that forces people to fend for themselves in a harsh and unforgiving world. Like exercise, the pain means it’s working. Or maybe you just tore a tendon. You should probably check with your doctor, assuming you can afford health insurance.
This barely concealed impulse to punish the undeserving is the source of Republicans’ internal conflict over the fiscal cliff and the biggest hurdle they must overcome in their efforts to become viable contenders for the White House again. They may not see it as punishment; to them, it’s just a teaspoon of unpleasant medicine that will eventually make the country much healthier. But things like government-funded health care, education, and retirement security only look like gifts from the perspective of the man who has everything. What Republicans see as unaffordable luxuries, the rest of us see as essential to a basic standard of living. Until they realize that, we might be able to reach a compromise on the fiscal cliff, but we’ll never really find common ground.
Tim Price is Deputy Editor of Next New Deal. Follow him on Twitter @txprice.