by Jules Witcover

As President Obama and Republicans in Congress approach the much-feared fiscal cliff of automatic deep budget cuts by year's end, his re-election victory may be his best trump card to get new revenue and avoid calamitous hemorrhaging to the social safety net.

The president made keeping the Bush tax cuts for the middle class a centerpiece of his campaign, along with eliminating them for the wealthiest 2 percent. The voters have spoken on the matter, the Democrats insist, and that their will should be done.

But another factor in the election equation may well be the damage the Republican Party has done to its institutional brand by its broad obstructionism. Obama's re-election reflected in part voters' recognition that a serious roadblock to recovery was the House Republicans' rejection of his proposals to get the economy humming again. Cemented in the process was the GOP's image as the Party of No.

Time and again in the campaign, Obama reminded audiences of the debate during the Republican primaries in which all the candidates were asked whether they would accept one dollar in new taxes for every 10 dollars in reduced spending. In a requested show of hands, not a single Republican on the stage signaled acceptance of such a deal.

That moment was a crowning jewel in the decades-long campaign of the party's Mr. No -- tax foe Grover Norquist. His Americans for Tax Reform was his vehicle for putting a wrestler's hammerlock on congressional Republicans. He could bask in the knowledge that they, and all the GOP presidential aspirants, were continuing to be bound by his "Taxpayer Protection Pledge" not to raise taxes -- not now, not ever.

Undertaken by Norquist in 1986 and eventually including 95 percent of all Republicans in Congress, the power of the idea was pointedly demonstrated in the 1988 presidential campaign. Then Vice President George H.W. Bush brought the Republican National Convention to its feet with his ringing assurance of "Read my lips: no new taxes!"

But in 1990, faced with a severe budget crisis, Bush yielded to the entreaties of key advisers and broke that pledge, confirming to party conservatives their long suspicion that he was not one of them,. It was a major factor in his re-election loss in 1992; the no-new-taxes pledge proved its political potency among the GOP faithful.

Since then, Norquist's pledge has endured as a firewall of Republican obstruction against Democratic efforts to extend federal government growth, particularly through the entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and now health insurance subsidies.

Obama's re-election has produced much Republican rhetoric about the willingness now to compromise on deficit reduction, paired with new revenue required to maintain the social safety net. At the same time, however, House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have signaled their intent to hold the line against raising taxes on the wealthiest to offset the costs of continuing the middle-class tax cuts.

For the first time, there appears to be a breach developing in that firewall of the Norquist pledge. Such leading Republicans as Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, and Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker of Tennessee have challenged the efficacy of the pledge in the face of the approach of the fiscal cliff.

In pure political terms, the operative question now is whether the Grand Old Party wants to risk putting into stone its developing reputation as the Party of No, with lobbyist Grover Norquist as its conspicuous pied piper leading his flock over that cliff. The chances are the GOP can actually improve its general public image by standing up to his efforts to maintain his strangehold, and avoiding a widely predicted economic fiasco by striking a deal.

A realization appears to be shaping within the party that its tea-party component is headed lemming-like over the cliff, all too willing to take its more moderate composition into the abyss with it. In 2010, after the sweeping Republican victory in the midterm congressional elections, the GOP leaders took the returns as license to resist Obama. This time around, they need to make a different reading of the latest expression of the public's will.

 

 

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