What Happens When Obama Tries To Compromise With The GOP

The mania for false equivalence and the pox-on-both-houses reflex among media types are in full effect now that government operations have shut down and people are looking for someone to blame. It's so strong, in fact, that reporters and pundits who recognize the hopeless and irresponsible intransigence of congressional Republicans nonetheless lay an equal (or perhaps greater) measure of blame at the feet of the president for failing to wheedle and cajole people who won't be wheedled or cajoled. It makes little sense, but sacrifices must be made when trying to force objectivity or, in the case of the Wall Street Journal editorial board, frantically deflect blame from the GOP.

Just this morning, during a segment on who to blame for the government shut down, CNN's Ashleigh Banfield hotly objected to Democratic strategist Paul Begala's accusation of false equivalence, arguing that she was just as hard on Democrats as she was on Republicans -- which was precisely Begala's point:

But what of this argument that Obama could end this stand-off with the Republicans in Congress and get the government back up and running if he would just try to compromise? It's a bad argument on the merits, since Republicans aren't actually seeking a compromise: they're trying to force Obama into giving ground while they give up nothing, as they already support funding the government. But even if Obama did try to negotiate, that's no guarantee the House Republicans would respond rationally. We know this because the one of the last times Obama negotiated with Republicans during a fiscal crisis, the so-called “fiscal cliff,” he offered real concessions and compromises and John Boehner and the House Republicans still refused to work with him.

The “fiscal cliff” was the catchy nickname for tax increases and cuts to government spending scheduled to occur simultaneously at the end of 2012. After Obama was reelected, he set to negotiating with Congress on ways to avoid going over said cliff. Obama had campaigned -- and won -- on a promise to allow the Bush tax cuts for households making over $250,000 a year (and individuals making $200,000) to expire. The House Republicans, having lost seats and the national popular vote, initially refused to allow any tax increases at all, though Boehner eventually indicated that his threshold for tax increases was $1 million a year in income.

The two parties were obviously at an impasse, so negotiations continued. Remember, Obama had the stronger hand politically -- he could have impressed upon Boehner that he was just reelected, comfortably, on a promise to raise taxes on individuals making over $200,000, and he was going to adhere to the will of the American people. Instead, Obama broke that campaign promise and gave ground. “In negotiations with Mr. Boehner,” the New York Times reported on December 22, 2012, Obama “had tentatively agreed to raise that threshold to $400,000, and Congressional Democrats on Friday said they would go as high as $500,000 if it would seal a deal with Republicans.” Observers were optimistic that Obama's concession would lead to a deal.

What did Boehner do? He cut off negotiations and introduced a bill that he called "Plan B," which would have set the threshold for tax increases at $1 million and was an “alternative to negotiating a broader package with President Obama.” Boehner had hoped to pass the bill to put pressure on Obama and the Senate to follow suit. The plan quickly fell apart. Even a threshold of $1 million was unacceptable to the orthodox anti-tax members of the House Republican caucus, and, facing unified Democratic opposition, Boehner and the rest of the House Republican leadership were unable to muster sufficient Republican support to pass the bill.

“Plan B” was shelved and Boehner abruptly recessed the House for the holidays. The fiasco left the task of forging a deal to the Senate and the White House, and when they finally hammered out an acceptable compromise, it passed the House but only because of strong Democratic support -- the Republican caucus voted against it by a 2-1 margin. The final fiscal cliff deal differed significantly from the White House's initial overtures. It put the threshold for tax increases at $400,000 and set the estate tax at 40 percent (the White House originally wanted 45 percent).

New York magazine's Jonathan Chait pointed out on September 30 that following the fiscal cliff, the Republicans hammered out a legislative strategy during an early 2013 retreat in Williamsburg, Virginia, to “boycott all direct negotiations with President Obama.” That strategy was a successor to their January 2009 strategy of reflexive opposition to every single legislative goal of the newly elected president. When you consider all this and how the House Republicans, led by Boehner, have behaved when negotiating with the president, it's tough to take seriously attempts by pundits to fault Obama for his unwillingness to negotiate.