Dawidziak: Barack Obama and John Boehner should ignore the zealots
Michael DawidziakMichael Dawidziak
Michael Dawidziak writes an opinion page column for Newsday. He
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By now we're all sick and tired of hearing about the "fiscal cliff." Most probably have only a vague sense of what it even means -- that the failure to produce a budget agreement will lead to the automatic expiration of tax cuts and trigger across-the-board spending cuts -- but we do know we've had it with the endless posturing and pontificating.
Yet the analogy of a cliff is most appropriate. The thought of going over the cliff conjures up an image of edging too close to the brink and toppling over. Nowhere is the art of brinkmanship practiced as it is in Washington. Our national lawmakers have a history of leaning way over the edge to get a real good look at the abyss before pulling back. Just last year, they did it over raising the debt ceiling; that dithering led to a downgrade in the U.S. credit rating, which could eventually affect the rate at which the government borrows money.
The cliff analogy also works because it symbolizes falling into unknown disaster. Although politicians and economists can guess what the effects of the higher tax rates and spending cuts would be, nobody really knows for sure. But the worst-case scenarios are frightening indeed. Returning to a recession, higher taxes and rising unemployment could put a burden too great to bear on families and businesses already on the edge of their own cliffs.
Fortunately, this week we've seen President Barack Obama and Speaker of the House John Boehner in compromise mode. Obama has moved his threshold on higher tax rates up to $400,000 in household income from $250,000 -- good news not only for Long Island families but for many Long Island businesses. A higher limit should help economic development here.
And Boehner has agreed to a true "millionaire's tax," agreeing to allow the Bush-era tax cuts to expire for people making more than $1 million a year. That's a significant ideological concession.
This progress is good news, since it takes much longer and much more effort to climb back up the cliff once you've gone over it.
In past budget deals -- Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill's in the 1980s, George H.W. Bush's deal with Senate and House Democrats in 1990 -- both sides have held their positions until, at the very last moment, Republicans reluctantly agree to limited tax increases and Democrats reluctantly agree to budget cuts. Then the tax increases are put into effect, but spending only increases.
That won't work this time. If we don't do something meaningful about the federal deficit, we will soon be facing a Europe-like crisis. That's why some on both sides of the aisle are advocating going over the cliff as the only way to effect deficit reduction.
But true leaders shouldn't be thinking this way. Obama and Boehner have both showed a willingness to compromise. Predictably, each is getting heat from the zealots in his own party. My advice to both men: Ignore the zealots and listen to the people.
The polls say overwhelmingly that Americans want the partisan gridlock to end. Democrats, Republicans and independents all say they expect their Washington representatives to work together for meaningful solutions. Polls indicate that most favor taxing "the rich" to get more revenue, and they favor cuts to defense spending as long as they won't imperil military personnel or homeland security. Most agree that entitlement reform is necessary, but they want their leaders to figure out the best way to do it.
Obama and Boehner should listen to them -- and their own best instincts.
Michael Dawidziak is a political consultant and pollster.