Republicans miss the point on ‘fiscal cliff’ debate
President Obama is winning the messaging wars in the “fiscal cliff” debate largely because Republicans aren’t even in the game.
The GOP leadership in Washington keeps talking as if the issue is deficit reduction, while the president is talking about fairness.
Consider the numbers. Sixty-one percent of voters want to see a deal reached to avoid the big Jan. 1 tax hikes and across-the-board spending cuts, and 68 percent want the deal to include a combination of both tax hikes and spending cuts. By a 2-to-1 margin, voters would like to see more spending cuts than tax hikes.
Instead, the president’s proposal includes $4 of tax hikes for every dollar of spending cuts, and the spending cuts are nothing more than a promise to work something out next year.
If the issue was really deficit reduction, the president’s proposal would leave the GOP in fine shape. But the president has the upper hand politically, and voters see him as more willing to negotiate in good faith.
To understand why, start with the fact that 57 percent of voters favor raising taxes on people who earn more than $250,000 a year. Republicans complain that this isn’t enough to make a dent in the deficit. Voters understand that already: Just 19 percent of voters think it is possible to balance the federal budget primarily by raising taxes on upper-income Americans.
Add to that the fact that voters don’t expect much substance to emerge from the fiscal cliff debate. If no deal is reached, taxes will go up on just about everyone, and there will be modest reduc- tions in proposed spending growth. If a deal is reached, six out of 10 expect the deal to lead to higher middle-class taxes, and only one out of three think spending will go down. In other words, most people expect pretty much the same result whether or not a deal is reached.
In this environment, the president has proposed a policy that addresses a perceived level of unfairness in the nation’s economic arrangements. Whether it’s the best approach doesn’t even matter because Republicans in Washington haven’t even tried to address the fairness issue. They keep arguing about economic theories.
As a result, 52 percent of voters now prefer a candidate who promises to raise taxes on the wealthy, while just 34 percent favor a candidate who opposes all tax hikes.
This highlights a larger problem faced by the Republican establishment. While most voters see Democrats as the party of big government, Republicans spend more time talking about government. They complain that it’s too big, imposes too many regulations and has unsustainable deficits.
Under Obama, Democrats talk less about government and more about how their policies will affect life in America. It’s the end result that a pragmatic nation cares about, not the policies.
For Republicans to succeed, they need to recognize that most voters don’t care about limited government. But voters care deeply about the type of society a limited government makes possible.
Applying that logic to the current debate over the fiscal cliff, Republicans in Washington need to recognize that few voters believe this is a serious debate about deficit reduction. The president has made it instead a debate about fairness, and they need to respond on that level.