On Counterinsurgency and Negotiating the Fiscal Cliff

Published December 12, 2012

Why are Republicans so bad at the game of negotiations? Consider a thought experiment: What if, the moment President Obama months ago suggested that he wanted to continue the Bush tax cuts for 98 percent of taxpayers, Speaker Boehner had rushed to the floor with a bill that did just that and only that, seizing an opportunity for agreement that the entire middle class ought to have those tax cuts remain, permanently?

The president probably would’ve balked at it – he wants additional deals on the debt ceiling and other matters included in this, and he wants Republican cover on all of them. But had Boehner done so, it would today be Obama, not the Speaker, who would’ve been holding up middle class tax cuts. That would’ve been tenuous ground. Obama might even have signed it. After which Boehner and his Republican allies in the House could move to the next part of the argument: lowering taxes on job creators.

The way to win in this scenario is not by playing the expected conventional game, which puts Republicans in a position where they won’t raise taxes for millionaires unless you also cut entitlements for old people. It’s a frame that is predictable, irritating, and obvious (“Like setting Julie Andrews on fire!”). But with a few exceptions, Republican negotiators seem content to approach the fiscal cliff deploying the same conventional strategies they did before.

The wiser approach would be to view this as an opportunity to apply basic COIN lessons to domestic politics: isolate the opposition from their base of support, clear areas before you advance, and present a unified message to the populace. (In all three aspects, the Republican leadership continues to fail with regularity.) The point is, letting Obama have that “win” by raising taxes on job creators doesn’t do anything to solve the nation’s fiscal problems. 

“Don’t confuse U.S. President Barack Obama’s “tax fairness” with real revenue. “About three-quarters of the revenue loss from the Bush tax cuts came from everything below the top two brackets,” said Michael Darda, chief economist at MKM Partners LLC in Stamford, Connecticut.

You mean, from the cherished middle class?

Yes, the very same middle class Obama says it’s his mandate to protect.”

They’re going to have to come back at this apple eventually – higher taxes on rich people are, for Obama, a moral issue, not a fiscal one. Republicans seem dedicated to protecting his ability to make the case it’s the latter.

[First published at Ricochet.]