The false equivalence of Democrats’ and Republicans’ negotiating positions

If you watched even 5 minutes of coverage of the debt limit debate, you probably heard the refrain “Democrats refuse to allow cuts to entitlements and Republicans refuse to allow tax increases.” This was repeated by every major news outlet as the basic underpinning of political negotiations over the US debt. If we take it at its word, it means that neither party is serious about the debt because solving our long-term debt problems will require us to both raise taxes and cut entitlements. The major problem with this view is that it is completely wrong. There is no equivalence between the parties’ negotiating positions.

Let’s start with the Republicans and their no-new-taxes stance. This line is completely true. No leader of the national Republican Party has passed, or pushed their members to pass, a statute increasing taxes since President George Bush Sr in 1990. That instance was widely viewed as a betrayal of Bush’s “read my lips: no new taxes” pledge is also widely viewed as the reason Bush Sr. was not elected to a second term. Ever since then, no Republican Congressional leader or major national politician has dared to propose or vote to raise taxes. The closest we have come recently (in my memory) was when John Boehner almost went public with the $4 trillion debt-solving deal he had made with President Obama earlier this year. As a result of Republican refusal to raise taxes on absolutely anyone, the United States lost its AAA credit rating and almost defaulted earlier this month. Republicans are almost unanimously, stridently and absolutely opposed to any new revenues.

Now Democrats and their apparent “no entitlement cuts” stance. We can look back just a year and see that Democrats are not really philosophically opposed to cuts in entitlements, like Republicans are ideologically opposed to any new taxes. The Affordable Care Act cut the deficit because it slowed the growth of Medicare by $500 billion over a decade. In doing so, it added several years to Medicare’s life and provided a mechanism for reducing costs without cutting benefits  (the IPAB). Also, even from the debt ceiling deal we saw that Democrats recognize that Medicare’s growth has to be curbed. The Democrats agreed with Republicans that should Congress fail to agree to a debt-reduction deal  in the next year, a set of triggers will kick in. One of those triggers is a $200 billion cut to Medicare. How much of the trigger consists of tax increases? None. Because the GOP would never let tax increases get on the table.

The GOP is militantly against tax increases and so is militantly unserious about solving the US’s debt problem. How should we then view the Democrats’ anti-entitlement cuts stance? Its a bargaining position, meant to counter the GOP’ anti-tax stance. Democrats say there can be no cuts to entitlements without new taxes and are therefore able to negotiate taxes into deal (besides looking like the responsible party, on the side of public opinion) while “giving up ground” on entitlements. That’s how negotiations work. We know its  a bargaining position because  Democrats have shown that they are flexible there.

Well, wait. How do we know the GOP’s stance isn’t just a bargaining position too? We know because since 1990, the GOP has never given ANY ground on its no-new-taxes stance. The GOP base crucified Bush Sr. for giving in on that issue and nearly did the same to Boehner. The GOP was ready to see the country default, rather than give an inch on taxes. No new taxes is a matter of orthodoxy for the GOP and that is why they are completely radical and unserious in the debate over the debt.

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