Thanks to Congress, the country may have seen perhaps the most bizarre and doldrum-filled New Year’s Eve in recent memory. As the proverbial federal piggy bank neared the edge of the infamous “fiscal cliff,” there’s a chance there were more eyes watching the ball drop on Capitol Hill than those enjoying glittery ticker tape at Times Square. It could be a first where C-SPAN and cable news beat the plethora of fun-filled celebrity box shows as anxious taxpayers brace for slimmed paychecks and budget cuts.
“New Years Eve officially ruined,” joked National Journal reporter and comedian Elahe Izadi on Twitter.
It will also be the first time since 1970 that Congress will count roll call votes during end-of-the-year holiday runs. Hence, the expectation is that Washington will be quite busy as politicians forego sparkling drinks in favor of what might amount to nothing more than face-saving optics. Many political pessimists aired doubtful analysis when President Obama cut short a vacation in Hawaii and called Congressional leaders to the White House for last minute negotiations.
The political disadvantages to falling off the cliff are abundantly clear. A public weary from recession and election wants compromise now. If the deal is not reached by December 31st, many experts fear the economically calamitous mix of tax hikes and budget slashing sequestration cuts. A recent Gallup daily tracking survey showed nervous Americans growing increasingly weary, with just an even 50 percent of Americans optimistic that a deal would be reached compared to 48 percent; that’s down from 59 percent at the beginning of December.
The Center for American Progress’ Michael Ettlinger points to public opinion and “reaction” as the scary unknowns that could make the fall of the cliff much worse than it could be. “You have a couple of weeks. A lot of it is how people react since that’s unpredictable. If you go a couple of months you start to see real reactions in the economy.”
“What could be apocalyptic is if the stock market takes a hit,” warns economist Ron Haskins at the Brookings Institution. “It’s playing with fire, that’s the part that’s really crazy to me when you start playing with our [national] credit.”
When Haskins talks of fire, most of the American public is visualizing scenes of House Republicans dancing around an uncontrolled bonfire like crazed pyromaniacs. In that case, conventional wisdom says the president has the upper hand in the situation. When the cliff jump occurs, polls typically point to the GOP. “Using the NBA as a metaphor, Republicans are like Ron Artest,” said Hiram College’s Jason Johnson, referring to the troubled Los Angeles Lakers player ‘Metta World Peace’ who is known for violent episodes on the court. “They’ve done so much damage already that everyone blames them for anything that goes wrong in Washington.”
But, a closer look reveals a divided and fickle public — which views all of Washington as radioactive. While most voters know the gist of the “fiscal cliff,” they are not completely privy to the negotiating details. According to a recent YouGov survey, 31 percent have a “Very Favorable” opinion of the president as opposed to 6 percent for Speaker Boehner. But, there are just as many — 33 percent — who have a “Very Unfavorable” view of the president, compared to 23 percent for the speaker.
And in a more pointed Reuters/Ipsos poll, a majority of respondents, 31 percent, blamed “all of the above” compared to 27 percent blaming Republicans in Congress and 16 percent blaming the president. Interestingly enough, Congressional Democrats seemed to get a pass — with only 6 percent blaming them for the current impasse.
Who is hurt more politically will crystallize as the nation falls over the cliff. But, as post-Christmas talks resume, the usual inside-the-Beltway blame game could create unusual political advantages for both sides. A fall over the cliff may give House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, the room to avoid an embarrassingly contentious January 3rd speakership re-election vote by fellow Republicans, as many senior Democrats have gleefully pointed out in recent weeks. “John Boehner seems to care more about keeping his speakership than keeping the nation on firm financial footing,” blasted Senate Majority Leader Harry Rei, D-Nev., last week.
“Republicans — particularly in the House — get political benefits from stubborn behavior,” observes John Hudak, a Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. “This behavior seeks to avoid primaries in 2014. Many House and some Senate constituencies find ‘compromise’ to be a political sin for which Republicans will have to make penance or face judgment. If we pass over the fiscal cliff, the nation may blame Republicans, but conservative constituents in Republican House districts will not.”
Hudak also points to a perception that the president and Congressional Democrats are growing “a backbone — something they have lacked over the last two years.”
“There are only political advantages in the relative sense,” says Ettlinger. “The public view of House Republicans will fall compared to everyone else since their stands are contrary to what everyone wants.
“The President’s hand is strengthened, the Democrats hand is strengthened, only because House Republicans fall further than they do,” adds Ettlinger. “The President is not playing a political game. Since he’s not up for re-election, he’s not too worried about political fallout. He’s just doing his job. But, it would be pox on everybody’s houses if they don’t cut a deal.”
“A recession doesn’t help anybody,” argues a nervous Haskins. “The polls suggest that they are going to blame Republicans, since the Republicans are viewed as intransigent. But, that’s pretty dicey. [Obama] is the President and people expect the President to lead. If there’s no deal, that reflects badly on him as well — especially if we get a recession.”