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Chait: Boehner's Inability to Bargain Helps Dems

If you read just one article today about the 'fiscal cliff' negotiations, a good choice would be Jonathan Chait's "Another GOP Leader Recognizes Reality" at New York Magazine, which takes an insightful look at who has the edge. Chait observes:

The showdown over the "fiscal cliff" has taken its first major turn, as Representative Tom Cole -- a former minority whip and still a leading House Republican -- is now urging his party to extend the Bush tax cuts for income under $250,000 a year. Meanwhile, Ari Fleischer is spinning this move as a big Republican win.

It's not. It's a recognition by at least some Republicans that their strategy of using the threat of an economic crisis to improve their bargaining position is likely to fail.

The key factor driving the entire negotiation is the baseline. The baseline determines what policies you can assume will happen, as against those you need to bargain for. Republicans want to bargain from a baseline of current tax policies -- i.e., the tax code that has been in effect since George W. Bush's tax cuts in 2001 in 2003. Democrats want to negotiate from a baseline that assumes the tax cuts that benefit only people earning more than a quarter of a million dollars have expired.

Chait goes on to explain that some Republicans are still entertaining delusions of having big leverage in the negotiations, but the smarter ones are accepting the reality: "At least some Republicans understand that this isn't a gun aimed at Obama's head. It's a gun aimed at their own. (Cole: "Some people think that's our leverage in the debate. It's the Democrats' leverage in the debate.")."

At this juncture, it's still unclear whether the delusionals or the realists will carry the day within the GOP. But it puts Speaker Boehner in a tough bind. As Chait concludes:

Let's put all the pieces together. House Republicans remain about as crazed and intransigent as ever, and as a result John Boehner remains almost totally unable to bargain. Cooler heads within the party see this intransigence careening toward a political debacle for the party that will wind up handing Obama even more leverage, and they're looking toward the path of least resistance to avoid such a debacle. That path is to extend most of the Bush tax cuts, spin it as a partial win, and live to fight another day.

Democrats shouldn't get too cocky about the negotiations, since we want to keep public opinion on our side. But the president and Democratic congressional leaders clearly have the leverage for a favorable outcome.