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Anatomy of a Flop: GOP "Cliff" Counter-Offer Fizzles

Yesterday evening we reported the details of House Republicans' "fiscal cliff" compromise offer to the White House, which offered real ideological concessions, to the tune of $800 Billion in new revenues.  The plan -- originally conceived last year by the Democratic co-chairman of the debt commission, Erskine Bowles -- also calls for the reduction of both discretionary and mandatory spending, making needed (albeit small-ball) reforms to the largest drivers of our debt.  Unlike the president's risible, widely-panned proposal last week, Republicans' new negotiating posture offers genuine compromise: (a) It has bipartisan origins, (b) it achieves "balance," (c) it raises revenues commensurate with the Senate bill, and (d) it seeks sacrifice from both sides of the aisle.  And yet it was rejected out-of-hand by the White House and Congressional Democrats in a matter of minutes.  For years, Beltway Democrats have made a habit of rejecting Republican offers, then shamelessly turning around and branding their adversaries as the "party of no" -- so last night's outcome was no surprise.  What is a bit surprising and discouraging is the pattern of Republicans demonstrating little capacity to internalize and act upon important lessons from previous skirmishes. For all of their lip service to "solutions," Democrats' behavior makes it clear that their primary goal is to exact political pain on Republicans.  David Gergen, a non-ideological fixture of the establishment commentariat, sees this partisan ploy for what it is:

At the end of the clip, Gergen warns Democrats that their arrogant intractability in negotiations threatens a national free-fall over the cliff, a political act that he calls a "very dangerous risk."  In a sane world, he'd be right.  But he fails to understand a key element of the Left's calculus here.  Despite a few contrarian rumblings, the media has largely played along with Democrats' narrative that the current tangled mess can be laid at the feet of Republican obstinacy.  Perception is reality, so "reality" holds Congressional Republicans more responsible for the impasse than any other actor in this interminable saga.  Just look at the polls.  This is why many liberals seem positively giddy about the prospect of cliff diving.  Taxes would go up on everyone, the military would receive a dangerous haircut, the economy would take a big hit, and an incensed electorate would point the finger at Republicans -- even if Democrats were the true culprits.  Republicans have again and again come to the negotiating table in an attempt to head off this eventuality.  They've come up empty at every turn.  This latest offer is fair-minded and earnest by any reasonable standard, and it's decent (if incomplete and ultimately inadequate) on substance.  But substance doesn't amount to anything if you can't win the argument in the court of public opinion.  

Thus, we're stuck with two political parties gripped by contrasting flaws.  Democrats are masterful manipulators and possess a penchant for effective political positioning. (Granted, having an obsequious, partisan media in your back pocket makes this task easier). On the other hand, they offer precious little on policy. To wit, they haven't passed a budget in three years, despite their statutory obligation to do so.  Power is their ultimate end, not governance. Republicans, conversely, have been churning out plans, policy proposals, compromises (and budgets) -- all while laboring under the apparent assumption that simply engaging in the difficult business of governing will somehow be sufficient.  It won't, and it's not.  Facing an opposing party president who is actively stumping for his agenda at public rallies -- replete with all the accoutrements and optics of a campaign stop -- Republicans wrote a letter, and leaked it to the media.   Various media scribes dutifully wrote articles about the missive, Democrats predictably pooh-poohed it, and less than 24 hours later, the debate has careened back into its familiar dead-end rut.  The Left is content to float along this path because they know they hold the public relations high ground.  It's Republicans who need to change the game, and sending a letter simply won't cut it.  Not even close.  

With due respect (and I mean that sincerely) to the GOP principals in this game and their tireless staff, Harry Reid wasn't too far off when he mocked their negotiating tactics yesterday, musing, "you're doing it wrong."  At this stage, many liberals are rooting for the cliff, and the White House is telling lefty reporters that Obama is willing to throw the economy overboard "if necessary."  These people don't harbor some insane economic death wish; they've made the calculation that their political pain will be significantly less severe than Republicans' should this thing play out.  The biggest problem for the GOP, as stated above, is that the public has bought into the notion that they are the biggest obstacles to a resolution.  The public must be jarred from this assumption.  I don't pretend to have any special insight into the back channel discussions between Congressional leaders and the White House, nor do I presume to have the singular wisdom to craft a flawless PR strategy.  I can only base my own analysis off of what Republican leadership has been saying publicly over the last few days -- namely, that negotiations have gone "nowhere."  If that's the case, yesterday presented an enormous opportunity for conservatives to tilt the playing field in a more favorable direction.  Their actual plan is strong, rational, and entirely defensible.  If you're going to go on offense, go on offense.  Here's how yesterday might have looked, under different conditions:

(1) On Sunday evening, Republican leadership aides leak word to key media figures that their bosses will be calling a press conference the following afternoon, at which they'd unveil a "major announcement" or "breakthrough" regarding the fiscal cliff.

(2) This news bleeds out online overnight, leading to rampant speculation -- which builds anticipation.  The chattering class on Morning Joe and Fox & Friends debate what might the afternoon might have in store.  Media outlets set up shop outside the Capitol, with reporters doing live hits throughout the day. 

(3) By early afternoon, designated staffers begin to offer the press a few morsels about the details of the announcement, fueling the hype.

(4) At 3pm ET (when the actual letter was made public yesterday), Speaker Boehner and his leadership team stride out onto the steps of the Capitol building and gather around a bank of microphones.  Perhaps they're flanked by a few small business owners.  With cameras rolling -- several of the cable news channels even pick up the live feed -- Boehner holds up the exact same letter, and says something like:

"I hold in my hand a letter we've just sent to the White House.  The American people are demanding a bipartisan compromise to avoid the fiscal cliff and the threat of another painful recession, and we Republicans have decided to take the lead in heeding the will of the people.  Today, we are announcing our support for a deal originally outlined by a Democrat named Erskine Bowles -- President Clinton's chief of staff and the co-chairman of President Obama's fiscal commission.  It includes some elements that we don't like very much, quite frankly, including $800 Billion in new revenues.  It also makes absolutely necessary spending reductions, which the American people have said must be the biggest element of any 'balanced' plan.  The Bowles plan is balanced, reasonable, and fair, which is why -- despite some of our misgivings -- we are embracing it, and we urge the White House and our friends across the aisle to join us."

(5) Boehner cedes the microphone to the requisite merry-go-round of leaders standing behind him (presumably the signatories of the letter, including Eric Cantor, Paul Ryan and Cathy McMorris Rodgers), each of whom makes a brief statement hammering home three or four key messaging points for Republicans.  "The Bowles plan."  "Bipartisan compromise."  "$800 Billion in new revenues."  Etc.

(6) These images and key soundbytes dominate the next news cycle.  Even if Democrats instantly reject the proposal, there's a much higher level of awareness that it exists (an improvement over the status quo) and some people might even ask a few tough questions about why Democrats were so flippant and dismissive about a major overture from Republicans.  

Yes, this all essentially amounts to superficial stagecraft, but it reflects today's reality.  Republicans are losing the fight over which side appears to be reasonable and conciliatory -- and which side is working hardest to make a productive deal.  The series of events described above (or some variation thereof) would have at least brought Republicans' message to the fore in a way they haven't enjoyed since the election.  Back to reality.  None of this happened.  They just fired off the letter and informed the media.  This approach has generated some press, but it was hardly a game-changer.  The dynamics and perceptions surrounding this dispute are unchanged.  Advantage: Democrats.  Again. 

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