For decades, when Democrats and Republicans agreed to work on deficit reduction, we saw a familiar dynamic: Democrats would seek new revenues, the GOP would push for spending cuts, and the larger argument was over the ratio between the two.
As Republicans moved sharply to the right, it became clear that their leaders were really only interested in looking at one side of the budget ledger. What's less well known is how they perceive Democratic efforts on the revenue side -- some prominent conservatives are convinced, apparently, that President Obama is just trying to be mean.
Even as they grudgingly have come to accept that they can’t prevent the expiration of the Bush tax cuts for the rich, Republicans have increasingly started explaining this pitiable state of affairs to themselves as the product of President Obama’s unique malevolence. The operating theory here is that Obama is not demanding higher taxes on the rich because it advances his public policy goals. No, his goal, writes Karl Rove today, is to “kick off a Republican civil war.” This odd theory has likewise found expression from Charles Krauthammer (“Obama’s objective in these negotiations is not economic but political: not to solve the debt crisis but to fracture the Republican majority in the House,”) Peter Wehner, and other luminaries of the right.
The psychology on display here is familiar to anybody who has seen a petulant teenager, who assumes that any restriction that causes them to feel anger must have been intended to produce that emotion. Republicans are feeling humiliated and divided, so Obama's goal must have been to humiliate and divide them.
This is a deeply odd perspective. There are basically two ways the federal government can shrink its deficit: it can (1) bring in more money, and/or (2) spend less money. Once Republicans accept the premise that fiscal negotiations will lead to some combination of the two, the next question is deciding where the additional revenue will come from and where the spending should be cut.
The principal goal is addressing the policy question, not figuring how best to "fracture the Republican majority in the House."
For Obama and most congressional Dems, it makes sense to ask more of the wealthiest Americans -- those in the top 2% of earners -- not to punish their success, but because they're best able to afford a small sacrifice; they've already benefited disproportionately from years of Washington generosity; and it will have the smallest impact on the broader national economy.
In other words, for contemporary Democrats, it's a matter of fairness and sound public policy. The White House could seek more revenue through loopholes and deductions, but there's just not enough money there to reach the goals both parties say they want.
But Rove, Krauthammer, and others see a more nefarious plot driving Democratic efforts, assuming that the rascally president is really trying to "kick off a Republican civil war."
As political paranoia goes, this is pretty silly. If there are deep GOP fissures, the party did this to themselves.