It is becoming clearer that the Republican party is actually two parties jammed together. The old school, traditional (and rational) GOP and the Tea Party are not one and the same. In regards to the fiscal cliff, the former wants to cut the best deal they possibly can, the latter demands total victory, or else will plunge the nation into another recession to achieve their goals.
Now we come to the matter of President Obama. He needs dealmakers to work with, not just in the current negotiations, but in the future. How can Obama use the fiscal cliff to break the Republican party of its tea addiction? The Economist sums up Obama’s strategy:
Mr Boehner will have to come up with a Republican position that Democrats can accept, and it is likely to be very close to the offer Mr Obama put forth on Monday.
A vote over such a compromise deal would tear the GOP’s congressional faction apart. However many Republicans defect on today’s vote over Plan B (The Hill‘s count currently has11 saying they’ll vote no and 25 more no-comments and undecideds), a multiple of that number would refuse to vote for a real compromise with the Democrats. Democrats could achieve a fiscal-cliff deal by winning the votes of a couple of dozen moderate Republicans, but such a move would be electoral suicide for any Republican who tried it. Republicans will need to form a large bloc to give themselves cover for a compromise, but the larger the bloc, the more dangerous the division between the party’s tea-party and moderate factions will be for its overall future.
Fostering the civil war in the Republican Party is crucial to Mr Obama’s chances of getting any part of his agenda passed over the next four years. The top items on that agenda are climate-change legislation, immigration reform, and (suddenly) gun control, along with keeping up some measure of progressive stimulus until the economy is fully recovering. But if the Republican faction in the House stays as united as it has been for the past 18 years, only immigration reform has any chance of passing. If Mr Obama can crack Republican party discipline on taxes, he may be able to press the other items on his agenda as well. Alternatively, he can look forward to elections against a divided, angry GOP in 2014, and hope to go into the last two years of his term with a stronger position in the House.
Republicans have locked themselves into an impossible position on budgeting by simultaneously vowing never to allow taxes hikes, and passing long-term budgets that create a fiscal cliff necessitating tax hikes. It’s in Mr Obama’s interests to gain Republican cooperation to work out the best possible deal, but if that’s not forthcoming, it’s also in his interests to use the impossibility of the Republicans’ position to weaken them. Back before the elections, Mr Chait wrote a piece distilling the thinking he’d heard from Obama aides on the budget debates. “The term that keeps popping up among Obamans is break,” Mr Chait wrote, “as in, ‘we have to break the Republicans on taxes.'” That strategy seems to be working out. Either Mr Obama is going to break the Republicans on taxes, or he’s going to try to break the Republicans. On taxes.