Sunday, Nov. 11, 2012 | 2:02 a.m.
A bad case of political denial is infecting conservatives nationwide.
Signs of Electile Denial Syndrome (EDS) were evident in the chatter on Fox News almost as soon as Karl Rove and Mitt Romney finally conceded. The contagion soon spread through several prominent precincts of conservative punditry. The symptoms? This sort of silly talk: Because the Washington political alignment didn’t change, the election signified nothing.
“Barack Obama won a moderately close victory over Mitt Romney on Tuesday,” Victor Davis Hanson wrote on National Review Online. “But oddly, nothing much has changed. The country is still split nearly 50/50. There is still a Democratic president, and an almost identically Democratic Senate at war with an almost identically Republican House, in a Groundhog Day America.”
Over at The Wall Street Journal, the editorial page contorted itself into a pretzel in its attempt to rob the voters’ verdict of any meaning. Events decidedly not of his own making had conspired to boost the incumbent. What’s more, Obama hadn’t really won the election; rather, Romney had lost it. And that loss notwithstanding, it was vital to recognize that when Romney had explained his fiscal plans in clear terms in the first debate, “he rose in the polls.”
The centerpiece of those plans, of course, was a $5 trillion (over 10 years) tax cut. When unveiled in February, Romney’s call for a 20 percent across-the-board income-tax cut had sent the Journal’s editorial page into Dionysian dithyrambs.
“Now that he has the right policy, Mr. Romney’s main challenge will be selling it without apology,” the paper opined back then. “He has resisted tax cuts for individuals lest he be criticized for helping the rich. ... But voters will sense if Mr. Romney doesn’t believe what he says or if he shrinks from making a forthright case for it.”
In the Journal’s view, Romney apparently offered just such a forthright explication of his tax cut plan in the first debate. Others may recall the evening somewhat differently, perhaps even as the time when Romney declared: “I don’t have a $5 trillion tax cut.”
Ah, but let’s be understanding. A faulty memory, after all, seems to be part of EDS.
But let’s also think about this honestly for a second. Does anyone anywhere doubt that if Romney had won, the Republican president-elect, Fox News, The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, and virtually everyone else on the conservative side of the Great Fiscal Debate would have declared that voters had emphatically endorsed Romney’s stand that the deficit had to be solved without higher taxes?
Instead, the nation re-elected a Democratic president who campaigned on asking upper earners to pay more in taxes, and who repeatedly said that taming the deficit would require both cuts in projected spending and additional revenue. Having taken his case to the country, Obama should rightly expect those rough contours to govern the upcoming deficit-reduction negotiations.
He obviously will run into Republican reluctance. In an ambiguous opening statement on fiscal-cliff negotiations, Speaker John Boehner on Wednesday leaned heavily toward one historically dubious supply-side tenet and one electorally repudiated Grover Norquist notion. To wit: 1) lower marginal income tax rates on upper earners are a job-creation catalyst, and 2) new federal revenues should come only through economic growth.
To be fair to Boehner, in last year’s fiscal negotiations he comported himself like a political grown-up. Still, he needs to recognize that Tuesday’s results validated the president’s stand.
The end-of-the-year expiration date for the Bush-era tax cuts also strengthens Obama’s hand. If the president doesn’t get a deficit deal he finds amenable, he could let all those cuts lapse, then offer legislation to reauthorize only the middle-class breaks.
That would present congressional Republicans with a difficult choice: Either hold the middle-class tax cuts hostage as a way to leverage continued breaks for upper earners or vote for middle-class tax relief while ceding the battle to keep the Bush rates for the well-to-do.
As for the president, he should enter these negotiations in good faith. Yet he also needs to learn from experience, which means he must make it crystal clear that if Republicans won’t meet him halfway, he’ll speak loudly — and wield the bigger stick he now carries.
Scot Lehigh writes for the Boston Globe.