01/04/2013 08:49 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Friday Talking Points -- Talking About the Deal

So, did we all have fun over the holidays?

The fiscal cliff fight went right up to the last minute, then we all momentarily Thelma-and-Louised over the cliff, and then Congress actually voted on a federal holiday. This last bit was so stunning, Congress is now going to take a two-week vacation just to recover (you know, from actually having to do their jobs). We missed commenting on most of this because we were busy doing our two-part year-end awards show (while also taking time to note that your constitutional right to flip the bird to a police officer has just been reaffirmed).

If we had a "best quote" awards category, we'd certainly have to nominate what outgoing House Republican Steven La Tourette had to say about the whole situation, after the Senate had voted 89-8 to approve the fiscal cliff avoidance deal: "We should not take a package put together by a bunch of sleep-deprived octogenarians on New Year's Eve." Now that's funny!

Humor aside, though the deal went through and immediately a contest erupted between left and right to see who could denounce the deal in highest dudgeon possible. We are not going to join in this flagellatory orgy, however, and are going to use our Friday Talking Points this week to point out why this deal is not just a pretty darn good one, but actually downright historic.

For those who may not agree with the previous statement, here's something we can all agree upon, in the spirit of entering the new year cheerfully -- Congress is now 100 percent Lieberman-free! Woo hoo! Not so sorry to see you go, Joe. Now please get off my teevee screen on Sunday mornings, okay?


While Democrats in general were showing a surprising amount of backbone in the entire fiscal cliff negotiation process, including folks like Harry Reid and Barack Obama, the one man being given credit for actually cutting the deal is the one who deserves this week's award.

Vice President Joe Biden is our Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week this week, for hashing things out with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Speaker of the House John Boehner pretty much threw up his hands and took himself out of the deal-making process when his own House Republicans wouldn't back him up, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was likewise sidelined when McConnell got frustrated with him and called up Biden instead.

Biden, you'll recall, used to be in the Senate. He knows how the chamber operates, and he knows how to bargain. He also knows the value of an actual deal, as opposed to the value of partisan posturing for the base or the media. So he broke the logjam and cut a deal with McConnell that sailed through the Senate (a vote of 89-8 is pretty rare on substantive issues, these days), and was then rammed through John Boehner's House -- forcing him to break the "Hastert Rule" (which is a pretty silly "rule" to begin with).

Was the deal perfect? Well, no. Could it have been better? Yes. Could it have been more progressive? Oh, certainly. Nonetheless, it passed. What you and I might consider the "perfect" bill likely would not have made it through Congress.

Which is the whole point. Joe Biden got what he could, gave where he had to, and still produced a deal which passed into law. There's even now a petition to "authorize the production of a recurring television show featuring Joe Biden" up on the White House website (which you can vote for yourself, if this sort of thing would interest you).

For achieving an agreement with the congressional Republicans which avoided the fiscal cliff (if you don't count the few hours we walked off the cliff in true Wile E. Coyote fashion, looked around, looked down in shock, and then ran back to solid ground before falling), for sealing a deal when all other Democrats had failed, and for the possibility we'll be seeing him in a reality show soon (heh), Vice President Joe Biden is our Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week.

[Congratulate Vice President Joe Biden on his White House contact page, to let him know you appreciate his efforts.]


The news today that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi just inserted a few House members into a group photo who didn't actually show up on time for the photo shoot is a little disturbing, we have to admit, but doesn't even rise to the level of a (Dis-)Honorable Mention, sorry.

The fiscal cliff deal itself was disappointing in a number of ways, not least of which was the failure to extend the payroll tax holiday for another year (or, at the very least, step it back up only one percent more a year). This is going to be shocking news to many Americans as they listened to Democratic politicians and the media tell them that the deal "would not raise taxes on middle class Americans" -- even though it will do precisely that. Whether or not there's a backlash from this realization will take a few weeks to play out. And that's just one of the disappointments in the whole deal.

But our real Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week this week is none other than President Barack Obama. While Obama is riding a huge wave of positivity in the job-approval polls at the moment, and while he's got a pretty favorable schedule to look forward to this month (what with his second inauguration and the upcoming State Of The Union address), we still have to single him out this week for some very quiet caving on national security issues.

Lost in the fiscal cliff media frenzy was something else Congress put on Obama's desk recently: the reauthorization of the Pentagon's budget, known as the National Defense Authorization Act (or "NDAA"). As usual, Congress included several things in this year's NDAA that Obama does not support, such as restrictions on closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay. Also included was the authorization to indefinitely detain American citizens, which is truly extra-constitutional tyranny of the first order. Obama had issued a veto threat to Congress on the NDAA, but he went ahead and signed it anyway. Obama also approved the massive continuation of warrantless wiretapping, another civil liberties fiasco.

Now, we realize that the Pentagon needs a budget and all of that, so we understand Obama was in a pinch with the bill Congress sent him. We are also (as are many, it's worth pointing out) feeling rather jaded on the entire subject of Obama seemingly channelling his inner George W. Bush on national security and civil liberties issues. It's not that we've given up on the issue, but we do see it as being firmly in the "beating a deceased equine" category, at this point. Obama doesn't seem willing to muster the political backbone to fight on any of these issues, and hasn't since his first days in office, so we're not expecting him to change any time soon.

But beyond this defeatism, we are awarding Obama the MDDOTW award this week not so much for signing a bill with bad things in it, but for issuing a toothless veto threat in the first place. The veto threat is arguably the president's strongest legislative weapon. It is only rarely used, and only rarely even threatened. But the rule of thumb should be that any time a president threatens a veto, he should be absolutely willing to follow through on that threat -- or else he loses respect and leverage with Congress for the future. Every time a president threatens a veto and then does not follow through, he is seen as weaker by his congressional opponents. It's just a fact of political life in Washington.

Which is why President Obama is our Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week this week. Don't make threats you aren't going to follow through on, Mister President. You just weaken yourself by doing so. If you're going to cave in the end, then refrain from making the veto threat in the first place -- it's that simple.

[Contact President Barack Obama on the White House contact page, to let him know what you think of his actions.]


Volume 239 (1/4/13)

All week long, the punditocracy has been fulminating over the fiscal cliff deal. From the left and from the right, there has been much garment-rending and gnashing of teeth. But you know what? This isn't such a bad deal, when you put it into proper perspective.

Our talking points this week are all in support of the deal, so be warned. Politically, it is hard to see how this is anything but damaging for Republicans, since their factional civil war in the House broke out into the open for all to gawk at. In the end, the Tea Partiers and Norquistians very publicly lost the battle. Perhaps this will reduce their influence in future debates, who knows? Even if it doesn't, the left should be basking in the schadenfreude right about now, while casting their eyes over the wreckage of what used to be the lockstep-Republican House, and their now-weakened leader John Boehner.

Sure, the left didn't get everything it wanted. But it could have been one whale of a lot worse. Consider all the things that didn't make it into this deal, in other words. Oh, sure, things like slashing Social Security and Medicare will be fought over again inside of the next two months, but none of it happened in this deal. That's a political victory, right there. Obama -- before the deal was even finalized -- appeared in one of the most cheerful official announcements he's ever gotten, and tossed down the gauntlet for the next round of negotiations. Obama will be looking for more tax revenue in the next deal, and he (so he says) will not be held hostage by the debt ceiling battle. He may, in fact, have a trillion-dollar platinum coin or two up his sleeve in that fight.

But let's look at what happened, as we'll have plenty of time later to pick apart the next deal, when it comes down the pike. Here are some suggestions for Democrats to use in explaining why the fiscal cliff deal wasn't just a pretty good one, it was downright historic.


   The first time in a generation

This is the main thing which truly puts the deal just cut into proper perspective.

"You know, you can pick nits all you want about the deal, but let's look at the larger picture instead. This deal is the first time in a generation that Congress has raised marginal tax rates. The last time Congress did so was in 1993 -- 20 years ago. The last time a tax hike passed with any Republican support at all was even further back -- a full 23 years ago. There are House members who have served ten full terms in office who have never seen this happen before, to put it in perspective. Did Democrats get everything they wanted? No, they did not. But they did manage to break the power of Grover Norquist and get an astounding number of Republicans on board with raising income tax rates on the wealthy. This was, in fact, a monumental achievement. Just look at the last two decades to see why."


   Washington ends a Big Lie in the budget

I have to admit, I called this one wrong. To me, this was the most stunning part of the deal, although the media didn't really stress it at all (due to most in the media being absolutely incapable of performing basic math).

"I am encouraged that Congress showed some real honesty in this deal, by permanently fixing the Alternative Minimum Tax. For years, Congress has played 'make-believe' with the AMT numbers, even though every single one of them knew that it was nothing more than a Big Lie in the budget projections. Each and every year, Congress pretended that they were only going to 'fix' the AMT for a single year, and that for the nine years after, it would remain unfixed. But everyone knew that was nonsense, because the AMT was 'fixed' every single year, like clockwork. Nobody wanted to see the real numbers. But when you hear the scoring on the fiscal cliff deal that was just signed into law, please remember that almost $2 trillion of the costs of this bill are nothing more than finally admitting that that $2 trillion was nothing more than smoke and mirrors in the first place; money that was never actually going to appear in the federal government's coffers. I applaud Congress for finally biting this bullet and getting back to some honest accounting rather than including make-believe and fairy dust in the 10-year budget projections. It took political courage, and it deserves a lot more attention than the media has been giving it."


   Thirty-nine-point-six percent

This is an important aspect of the deal that has been overlooked by the legion of critical voices out there.

"Yes, I would have preferred Obama had realized his campaign promise to raise tax rates on those making above $250,000 a year, but you never get everything you want in any particular bill. What Obama did hold firm on was another figure that had been rumored to be on the negotiating table. A few weeks before the deal was cut, the conventional wisdom in Washington was that the Republicans were going to get Obama to lower the highest tax rate from 39.6 percent to only 37 percent. I know it's tough for pundits to remember back that far, but this was indeed what everyone was saying inside the Beltway a few short weeks ago. The final deal that was cut did not lower this rate -- Obama got the full 39.6 percent for the upper tax bracket. So while he had to move on the $250K limit, he didn't budge on the tax rate itself -- something not many people have given him credit for."


   Cutting loopholes for the wealthy

This is where Obama could indeed gain further concessions in the next round of budgetary deal-making, but again, it's been given short shrift so far by the talking heads.

"Another thing few have noticed is that Obama did indeed raise taxes on those making a quarter of a million dollars per year. Deductions and exemptions and other loopholes will be limited for taxpayers above this threshold. This is something I expect Obama to revisit in the next round of budget negotiations, now that the tax rates themselves have been raised. Cutting loopholes for wealthy taxpayers should be very much on the table next time around -- but any agreement should preserve tax benefits for the middle class below the $250,000 line, as the fiscal cliff deal does."


   A step towards solving the Buffett problem

Lefties are complaining about the deal's treatment of capital gains and dividends, but once again, this should be seen as a step forward toward an ultimate goal.

"The fiscal cliff deal moves the tax system one step towards fairly treating all income the same, and solving the problem of Warren Buffett paying a lower tax rate than his secretary. Capital gains and dividends for upper-income taxpayers will now be taxed at a base rate of 20 percent rather than 15 percent. That's a rate hike of one-third, but it doesn't go nearly far enough. Remember, the Paul Ryan budget wanted to move this tax rate to zero, folks. So while Buffett may now pay only slightly more than half the rate than he would if it was regular income, this is still a big step in the right direction."


   Estate tax hike

Once again, this is an area being widely criticized, but again, let's put it into some perspective.

"The fiscal cliff deal raises the estate tax from 35 to 40 percent on the wealth passed from generation to generation. Now, while I would have liked to see the rate even higher than that and the exemption limit lower, I still have to score this one as a minor victory for Democrats. Remember, the original Bush tax cuts reduced this tax rate to zero. So where we are today is a big step down the road to where we should be. And please don't bring up the mythical family farmer. Republicans have been searching high and low for a family farmer who lost his land due to having to pay the estate tax -- searching for over a decade -- and yet they've never managed to find a poster-child family farmer to trot out in front of the cameras. It's a myth -- the way the tax is structured allows family farmers to cope with it when passing their land on to their children, so please, let's not even go there. The estate tax not only survived the fiscal cliff deal, but it has been increased. I'd like to see it changed even further, but it's hard to see how that's a bad outcome, for now."


   Ask an unemployed person

This one is for all those who aver that going over the fiscal cliff would somehow have been better than cutting a deal to avert the worst consequences of doing so.

"I know many Democrats were urging President Obama and congressional Democrats to just go over the cliff and be done with it. Obama, from new reports on the negotiations, actually used the threat of doing so quite effectively in the bargaining. But Obama doesn't have the luxury of treating the situation like a parlor game. Going over the cliff would have had some real-world consequences that were impossible for him to just ignore. So, to any Democrats grumbling that we should have Thelma-and-Louised right off the fiscal cliff, I have one thing to say: ask an unemployed person whose benefits were about to run out if they agree with you or not. Ask them whether they would have cheered Obama on while facing their own economic ruin. There were harsh realities involved in going over the cliff that have now been averted. While the deal certainly isn't what I would call perfect, it did save a lot of folks a lot of very real harm. Obama should be commended for his leadership in not allowing that to happen."


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