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Craig Frucht | Road to November

Gifts and Cliffs

Published: Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Updated: Tuesday, November 20, 2012 08:11

 

Losing presidential candidates never do much for the party brand, but you’d be hard-pressed to find another one who was as damaging as Mitt Romney has been to the Republicans.

You could make the argument that Jimmy Carter was that devastating to the Democrats. His defeat in 1980 gave Ronald Reagan a mandate to proceed with a platform built around dismantling the New Deal and implementing “trickle-down” economic policy. Today’s Republican leaders have taken charge of that agenda, made it even more extreme, and turned it into something resembling an ideological crusade.

But thanks to Romney, Republicans have a much tougher sell than they did just two years ago. Romney slapped a smug, spray-tanned, aristocratic face onto an economic platform that many Americans already had difficulty relating to.

And unlike Carter, Romney didn’t stop making gaffes once he was defeated. Perhaps not content with a feeble “Thanks, guys” as his parting words on Election Night, Romney infuriated his party last week when he said on a conference call with campaign donors that he lost because the Obama administration had given “gifts” to its core constituencies to get them to vote for him.

The “gifts” comment harkens back to Romney’s infamous “47 percent” remarks, and what he’s really saying is that President Obama’s supporters are all freeloaders looking for government handouts. It’s a blatantly elitist comment, and the most transparently bitter post-defeat sound bite to emerge in recent electoral history. It also couldn’t have come at a worse time for Republicans. The fiscal cliff is looming at year’s end, and the last thing they need is Romney publicly reinforcing the notion that their platform for negotiating with Obama stems from the belief that half the country isn’t pulling its weight.

Speaker of the House John Boehner is already in a corner here. Both parties agree that the George W. Bush-era tax cuts, which are set to expire, should be renewed for individuals making less than $200,000 and families making less than $250,000. The sticking point is what to do about the tax rates for the wealthy, which will increase from 35 to 39.6 percent without Congressional action.

The problem for Republicans is that the middle class tax rates are their only bargaining chip. If they relent to Democratic leaders’ demands to pass an extension of those cuts immediately before turning their attention to the highest tax brackets, they will have no leverage to negotiate an extension of the tax cuts for the wealthy. But by bundling the two issues together, Republicans will take the brunt of the blame in January if the government is still stalemated and the average family of four is looking at a $2,000 tax increase.

Obama’s reelection makes it clear that Americans aren’t buying into the trickle-down roots of the Republican bargaining position. The House doesn’t have the political capital right now to hold the economy hostage in a quest for ideological purity, and Boehner knows it.

But keep in mind that this is the same Congress that brought the nation to the brink of default last year just to make a symbolic point about deficit control. Moreover, many of the most extreme congressmen are beloved in their districts, and they’ll be vulnerable in primaries if they renege on their pledge never to vote for a tax hike. Boehner may be a pragmatist, but most of the rank-and-file couldn’t care less whether Obama has a mandate. If Boehner tries to force the issue, he’ll find his speakership in jeopardy.

So Democrats have to flexible here, too: This deal doesn’t get done at 39.6 percent. It’s Obama’s job to find a number that allows Republicans to save enough face that they can get hold their nose and approve it but that doesn’t shift the entire burden of deficit reduction onto ordinary Americans.

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Craig Frucht is a senior majoring in political science and psychology. He can be reached at Craig.Frucht@tufts.edu.

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