A reader who wants to go by “M.” writes in:
I have three thoughts on your post. First, the politics motivating the recalcitrant House Republicans is not a desire to sharpen distinctions between the parties, but rather the more parochial fear of getting primaried by Tea Party. In politics, as a rule, the more often a legislator has to run for office and the smaller his constituency, the easier it is to scare him away from taking a controversial position.
My second thought is that the phenomenon you describe — House Republicans voting against a tax increase even though as a consequence the country will be saddled with still higher taxes — is precisely what occurred on the eve of the first Gulf War. Needing a budget deal before the start of hostilities against Iraq, President George H.W. Bush negotiated a deal with Democrat and Republican leaders, in which he broke his “no new taxes” pledge. The tax increases were modest, and the president could justly claim to have held the line, especially given the alternative. But House minority whip Newt Gingrich nevertheless rebelled against the plan, As a result, the president was predictably forced to cave in to the Democratic alternative, which involved much higher taxes.
The Tea Party (and I consider myself a member in good standing) is being silly on tax rates, which are near historic lows in the modern era (about 15 percent of GDP). They should be focused on entitlements, the deficit, and a tax code that punishes business activity, which is where the real problems lie. Focusing on taxes guarantees that the president will get his way across the board, because he is perfectly happy to go off the fiscal cliff while blaming Republicans for an increase in middle class taxes. In fact, Republicans should be willing to raise tax rates to a level commensurate with spending, so the American people can see just how much Obama’s middle-class entitlement state truly costs. Obama’s ultimate goal is to lock spending in at the levels his original stimulus increased it to four years ago, around 25 percent of GDP, where it has remained since. Force Americans to start paying for what this level of spending truly costs, and Republicans will soon find themselves back in power, with a mandate to reduce both spending and taxes.
Regarding point 1, it’s pretty tough to beat an incumbent in a primary. Would Republicans really be vulnerable to a challenge because they voted for a bill to restraint tax increases as much as they thought possible–a bill that Grover Norquist affirmed did not count as a tax increase?
Regarding point 2, that’s a point in favor of the argument I’m opposing. In the long run in that case it was probably better for anti-taxers to launch a revolt that caused taxes to go higher in the short run.