Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Political Risks of the Fiscal Cliff

Who faces the greatest political risks from the fiscal cliff?  It ain't the Democrats.  They could do nothing, and watch the pre-Bush tax rates go back into effect in 2013.  While this would have a near term negative impact on consumer spending, it would lower the federal deficit.  That would promote long term economic growth.  The President would take some heat for the economic slowdown, but the Democrats would have four years to recover before facing the 2016 Presidential election.  By then, the economy might well be improving.

If there is a deal on the fiscal cliff, it would probably include some cuts to Medicare and Medicaid, and perhaps to Social Security (although the latter is less likely, since Social Security is actually much less of a fiscal problem and more visible to the voting public).  The Democrats would blame these cuts on Republican insistence (of which there is plenty).  Meanwhile, the Democrats would take credit for whatever tax increases or enhancements or whatever else would be part of the deal, which probably would fall more heavily on the rich than the 99%.

The Republican insistence on no tax rate increases allows President Obama to replay his winning electoral strategy of advocating tax increases for the rich.  Republicans believe too much in their own P.R., that all taxes increases are invariably bad and that spending cuts would somehow be made to prevent taxes from increasing.  A majority of the electorate thinks otherwise, and the Republicans conceded these voters (let's call them the 51%) to President Obama. 

 The baseline problem with the Bush tax cuts is that they reduce federal revenues to the point where Social Security and Medicare--the two most sacred bovines of American politics--are imperiled.  It's one thing to attack federal funding of bridges leading to nowhere.  It's another to take away bread and butter from the elderly.  Republicans have managed to put themselves in a corner where they seek to protect low taxes for the wealthy while trying to squeeze pensioners having modest incomes.  They ultimately can't protect the wealthy from a tax increase--the Democrats can do nothing and those increases will take effect at midnight, Jan. 1, 2013.  But the Republicans can manage to look like Scrooge during the Christmas season as they advocate cuts for moderate income retirees.  Politically, it won't be the Democrats who tumble over the fiscal cliff.

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