The looming "fiscal cliff" is dominating the news, with many observers predicting that the lame-duck Congress will not be able to negotiate a solution before the first of the year. Congressional approval ratings remain at record lows, and a majority of Americans continue to believe that our nation is on the wrong track. What few are saying is that this is the perfect moment for Republicans to recast their image with voters, and along the way, do what's best for the country. Some advice for House and Senate Republicans as they begin negotiations:
1. Get graphic. As Republican senators began announcing their intention to break their "no tax" pledges and support higher marginal tax rates, House Republican leaders made the rounds of the cable news shows arguing that closing loopholes, limiting deductions, ending corporate welfare, and simplifying the tax code will raise more revenues than a rate increase and protect small-business owners. Well, don't just tell us—show us. House Republicans need to prove their argument with real numbers, and if they have some charts and graphs they can use, even better. An easy-to-understand and well-illustrated case for tax reform that will jump-start the economy should be posted on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube where voters can share it.
2. Don't fear the "third rail." Even after putting Paul Ryan on the ticket and campaigning on Medicare reform, Mitt Romney won the senior vote 56-44 percent nationwide. Two years ago, Marco Rubio won his Florida Senate seat in a landslide after calling for an increase in the Social Security retirement age. The moderate think tank Third Way found in a post-election poll that even four out of five Obama voters believe it would be better for the country if the president and Congress made changes to fix Social Security and Medicare, rather than leaving the programs as they are. Democrats haven't figured out yet that entitlement reform isn't the "third rail of American politics" anymore. Mainstream voters know reforming entitlements is the reasonable, responsible thing to do, and Republicans should lead the way. The votes will follow.
3. Let's see real balance. President Obama says he'll consider only a "balanced" approach. But he's not walking the walk. He hasn't mentioned cutting spending in weeks, and insists on raising tax rates first. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has ruled out making any changes to Social Security; Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin wants all entitlement reforms—the biggest drivers of skyrocketing federal spending—off the table. Why? Because liberal activists, who were a big part of the president's re-election team, aren't supporting any changes to Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security. Labor unions already are running TV and radio ads opposed to spending cuts. Eddie Vale, a spokesman for Protect Your Care, a progressive advocacy group, told the New York Times: "Activists want to fight for issues they can believe in ... A call to cut a bipartisan deal—that's not going to cut it." Not exactly a "balanced" approach from the White House and its supporters. Nor is it one most Americans support. Here's the problem: According to a recent Pew Research Center/Washington Post poll, more voters would blame Republicans than Obama if the two sides fail to reach a deal. Republicans have more incentive than the president does to reach a bipartisan deal that really is balanced. What the president doesn't seem to realize is that voters want a truly balanced deal as well.
4. Go to bat for Bubba. Here's CNN's Wolf Blitzer asking House Republican Whip Kevin McCarthy why he won't agree to raising taxes on those making over $250,000 a year: "Those families and those small businesses did quite well during the years of the Clinton administration when the rate was 39.6. Why not go back to that?" What Blitzer failed to mention was that when President Clinton's top tax rate was 39 percent, government spending was only 18.2 percent of GDP. (Under President George W. Bush spending rose to 20.8 percent; now, under President Obama, spending stands at 24.3 percent of our economy.) Liberals want to return to 1990s tax rates but not 1990s spending levels. Clinton-era tax rates with Obama-era spending won't bring us back to a balanced budget. Republicans should answer liberals longing for a return to Clinton's tax policies with a challenge to meet his spending caps as well. Even Clinton might actually agree with conservatives on that.