Can’t be too conservative

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, December 11, 2012


Three weeks before the deadline to avert the fiscal cliff, Democrats and Republicans are still very far apart. As both sides talk ponder the costs and benefits of going over the cliff, conservative Republicans seem emboldened by their belief that voters will not punish them for their unwillingness to engage in negotiations with the White House. As both parties know that they need to cater to their constituents in the next two years, they will make little effort to broker bipartisan agreements.  After all, President Obama is getting his highest approval now that he has adopted a strong bargaining position and Congressional Republicans don’t need to worry about their approval numbers until the midterm election of November of 2014.


Negotiations to avert the fiscal cliff resumed yesterday, after Congress took a long weekend recess. However, there are hardly any reasons to expect that progress will be made this week.  Both Democrats and Republicans have simply reiterated their positions rather than shown a desire to find common ground.


President Obama seems more interested in bringing his message in favor of higher taxes on the wealthy to the American public than on negotiating with Republican leaders in Congress.  The strategy has paid off for Obama.  The president has enjoyed more than 50% approval since re-election. His disapproval has remained below 45% for more than a month. Though pundits and analysts have criticized the President for not showing more willingness to negotiate and compromise with Republicans, the American public seems content with the new presidential style of playing hardball with the opposition. Moreover, since he will not be on the ticket in 2016, President Obama no longer has re-election as his main priority. He can afford taking on some fights with his opponents. Besides, the more polarized American politics become, the more likely that Obama’s main legacy from the first term, his healthcare reform, is to consolidate and become a permanent feature of the American safety net. Because Republicans labeled it Obamacare, the first African American president will add his own mandatory health care personal legacy to the social safety structure comprised by Social Security, Medicare (for the elderly) and Medicaid (for the poor). 


Republicans have little to fear in terms of an electoral backlash. People approve of the President’s position on raising taxes on the wealthy. More than 60% of Americans believe that taxes should go up for those making more than 250 thousand a year. Yet, public opinion has little long-term memory. Though Republicans might be disapproved of in polls now, there is little chance that voters will punish Republicans when the November 2014 elections take place. Moreover, since fewer people vote in midterm elections, Republicans can safely anticipate that turnout will be low among Latinos and African Americans, two strong voting blocs of the Democratic Party.  People in urban areas and minorities have lower turnout in midterm elections. In 2014, Republicans defend 13 seats in the Senate in 2014, while democrats defend 20.  All the Republican seats are in safe Republican states—places where Romney defeated Obama. Democrats will defend four seats in states that Romney won in 2012. Thus, regardless of what Republicans do, they are much more likely to pick a few seats in the Senate in 2014 if they stick to their principles and cater to their hardline electoral base.


In the House, the 234-201 Republican advantage is unlikely to change by much. In 2012, Democrats got more votes than Republicans (59.2 million to 58.1 million), but because of gerrymandering (districts especially drawn to favor the dominant party in the state) and because support for Democrats concentrates heavily in urban areas—where Republicans have little support—the Republican Party gained more seats. Even if democrats pick a few seats in 2014, they are unlikely to make a gain of 17 seats, the magic number they need to command a majority in the House.  Thus, Republicans have little reason to fear an electoral backlash if they stand firm against the President and reject calls to broker a compromise solution on the fiscal cliff.


With liberal democrats suggesting that going over the cliff is the only way to finally get a tax increase on wealthiest Americans, President Obama might decide to go over the cliff now and minimize the negative impact on the American economy by introducing tax breaks for the middle class in 2013 and negotiating spending increases for social programs that are quite popular with many Republicans who are otherwise fiscal conservatives.


Given that likely scenario, Republicans have little incentives to moderate. Since they have no electoral backlash to fear from moderate voters, but they are certain to be punished by their conservative base if they compromise, Congressional Republicans have an obvious winning strategy. Republican congress members will embrace conservative positions and will resist calls to enter into a real bargaining with the White House.  As it now stands, the Democrats and Republicans are united in believing that their best strategy now is to go over the cliff when the year ends.