Opinion Brief

The fiscal cliff: Have Republicans forgotten how to negotiate?

President Obama has apparently learned the art of the deal. Can Republicans make him an offer he can't refuse?

Talks to avert driving off the fiscal cliff have hit a wall, according to Republican leaders. Indeed, President Obama and congressional Republicans are "a grand canyon" apart, concurs The Week's Paul Brandus. The problem? "The Republicans are, reportedly, outraged by President Obama's opening bid," says Joe Klein at TIME. He wants $1.6 trillion in tax increases over 10 years, $50 billion in immediate stimulus spending, an extension of the payroll tax holiday and unemployment benefits, and control over raising the debt ceiling — all in return for $400 billion in future cuts to Medicare. Will he get all that? No. But as Republicans once knew, "that's how people negotiate": I make an offer, you make a counteroffer, we meet somewhere in the middle.

Why were Republicans shocked that the president asked for what he wanted? "We became so accustomed to Obama's earlier habit of making pre-emptive concessions that the very idea he'd negotiate in a perfectly normal way amazed much of Washington," says E.J. Dionne in The Washington Post. As they have for the past four years, Republicans "seem to hope a deal will be born by way of immaculate conception, with Obama taking ownership of all the hard stuff while they innocently look on." But after the election, it's a different card game now, and Obama is holding a much better hand. In other words, says Paul Krugman at The New York Times, "Obama has demanded that the GOP put up or shut up — and the response is an aggrieved mumble."

The idea that Obama used to pre-emptively surrender "would be a nice story to bolster the president's case if it were true," says Conn Carroll at The Washington Examiner. "Except it is not." This is how Obama has "negotiated" with Republicans since Day 1. "He expects to get everything he wants and is not willing to make any concessions. (Watch MSNBC's Melissa Harris-Perry favorably compare Obama's negotiating tactics to The Godfather below.) In this case, some Republicans are hedging on their "no new taxes" pledge, while Democrats aren't doing the same with their equivalent line in the sand: Keeping Social Security and Medicare sacrosanct, says Robert Samuelson at The Washington Post. Until Democrats put cuts to entitlement on the table, "they aren't bargaining in good faith."

"I'm old enough to remember when Republicans insisted that anyone who said they wanted to cut Medicare was a demagogue, because I'm more than three weeks old," says Michael Grunwald at TIME. It's not that Republicans don't know how to negotiate, it's that they keep on changing their demands, then rewriting history to support their position du jour. "The press can't figure out how to weave those facts into the current narrative without sounding like it's taking sides, so it simply pretends that yesterday never happened." We probably won't get a clear list of GOP demands until the media stops acting as stenographers to an entire political party prone to "invent a new reality every day." So don't hold your breath.

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