At first glance, the fiscal cliff agreement, which raises taxes and fails to restrain spending, doesn't look great from a conservative perspective.
For all its failings, however, the deal still deserves the embrace of conservatives. Politics, after all, is the art of the possible. And for the price of short-term pain, this agreement offers Republicans the dramatically increased bargaining strength we will need for the essential debt-limits negotiations, which beckon in March. Ultimately, the March negotiations are the key to saving America from a debt-fueled economic catastrophe. But there are plenty of other reasons for conservatives to support this deal, too.
The first reason is patriotism.
While it perhaps seems a little presumptuous to argue that the cliff agreement is one of patriotic virtue, if we consider the great damage that the averted sequester cuts would have done to the U.S. military, the patriotism case quickly becomes a lot stronger. National defense is the first responsibility of government. Supporting national defense also requires supporting the mechanisms of defense. In this sense, cutting billions upon billions of dollars would have gutted our military while simultaneously inviting challenge to our interests. In short, we would have been left vulnerable and impotent. The cliff deal preserves our military for now, and for conservatives, that should be a big positive.
The second reason is policy.
It's crucial to understand that this agreement doesn't represent a final deal. Some conservatives, like Eric Cantor and Marco Rubio, opposed the deal because it lacks obvious and immediate spending cuts. They fear that the deal crystallizes an American future of higher taxes, an ever-expanding state, and an unstoppable national debt. But their analysis is incorrect. As it became clear that the cliff negotiations were dealing with small figures (less than $4 trillion in 10-year savings) and that Obama was incapable of leadership (beyond theatrics), it also become evident that a big number deal wasn't in the cards. Therefore, in the absence of a grand bargain, GOP negotiators had to make a choice — jump off the cliff, or make the most of a bad situation. In preserving our military, enshrining low taxes into law and laying down a newly positive foundation for the March negotiations, they chose the latter option.
This final point — shaping a new foundation for the March negotiations — is indispensable. Without this new foundation, I could not have supported this agreement. Without a minimum of $4 trillion in new 10-year savings, America will enter a fiscal black hole. Obviously, finding $4 trillion isn't easy. Alongside major spending cuts, a final debt solution will also either require further tax increases or the closing of tax loopholes and popular exemptions. This isn't opinion, it's basic math. Because of the distortions that loopholes/exemptions impose on the economy, conservatives favor reducing these distortions in preference to increased tax rates. We favor free enterprise rather than a tax code polluted by special interests. The cliff deal serves this philosophy. By beginning the politically difficult work of closing loopholes/deductions, the deal advances the conservative tax position in an unprecedented way. Until now, the Democrats had resisted such reforms. Their new acceptance represents a major conservative victory.
But it isn't just the tax code where the cliff agreement makes conservative sense. In raising the income threshold for the top tax bracket to $400,000 for individuals and $450,000 for couples, the agreement accomplishes another critical conservative objective — limiting the federal government's ability to extract wealth from taxpayers. This is an exigent need. Why? Because it is impossible to build an American welfare state on the back of a "rich" class who already provide over 70 percent of all tax revenue. By accepting a raised threshold on "richness," whether he knows it or not, Obama has limited his ability to build the tax base necessary for a welfare state. Just look at the U.K., where because of state expenditures, income over $56,000 is taxed at a minimum level of 40 percent. This is why liberals are in uproar. The cliff deal has struck a hammer blow against their long term ambitions.
The third reason for conservatives to support the deal is one of politics.
Put simply, going off the cliff in order to avoid tax hikes on the most wealthy would not have been good politics. Conversely, in agreeing to a deal which puts country before tax orthodoxy, Republicans have scored a major PR success. Voters now see a party newly willing to make difficult choices for the good of the country. This perception will be of profound importance in helping consolidate Republican demands for entitlement reforms in March. Conservatives are now able to make a clear, persuasive case to the American people — "We've accepted tax increases, now we need spending cuts."
Again, this agreement is no conservative joyride. It taxes more and it spends more. But it also satisfies patriotic obligations, while providing policy and political foundations that are necessary for a future comprehensive debt solution. Until now, conservatives lacked those foundations. True, President Obama has stated that come the debt limit talks in March, he "will not have another debate with the Congress over whether they will pay the bills they've already racked up."
LOL. Good luck with that Mr. President. You've played your hand, now conservatives have the ball. Next time, popular opinion will be on our side. Entitlement reforms are coming.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- How the South's ugly racial history is haunting ObamaCare
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- What if Leo Strauss was right?
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- Stop making fun of philosophy and read some philosophy
- If Democrats abandon immigration reform after Tuesday's likely loss, they will turn 2016 into a debacle
- Beware of Splenda: The backlash against artificial sugars
- How to live a long life, according to science
- 10 things you need to know today: October 31, 2014
- 6 things the happiest families all have in common
Subscribe to the Week