Conservative Pundits Fail Again

The Aspen Institute

Conservatives: Don't listen to this guy.

The conventional wisdom on fiscal cliff negotiations is that President Barack Obama holds most, if not all, of the leverage. If Republicans refuse to budge, the government automatically imposes policies that Republicans fear—higher tax rates and sharp cuts to military spending.

Insofar that the GOP has any leverage, it comes from the fact that the White House wants to protect the recovery, which is threatened by the fiscal cliff’s combination of large spending cuts and tax increases. But since refusing to cooperate leads to outcomes they want to avoid as well, they have a strong incentive to work with Obama.

Fred Barnes, writing at The Weekly Standard, begs to disagree. By his lights, it’s Republicans who have the leverage in this fight, and they should use it to force concessions from the president:

Republicans are in a stronger position than in 2009. Obama isn’t. He won reelection thanks to a negative campaign of historic proportions. He has no mandate. And now he’s made the mistake of thinking he’s more popular and powerful than he really is. This is how second terms crumble.

Barnes advises Republicans to adopt the Simpson-Bowles framework, make several key concessions on taxes and spending, embrace Medicare reform, and force Obama to choose between their preferences or get nothing. It’s an odd list, considering that Simpson-Bowles calls for full expiration of the Bush tax cuts—which Republicans, including Barnes, oppose—and the fact that Obama can harm GOP priorities by declining these proposals—which include substituting military cuts for cuts to the social safety net—and allowing the United States to go “over the cliff.”

Republicans could follow the Barnes approach, but it wouldn’t get them any closer to accomplishing their goals, insofar that they even have them.

Indeed, as a general rule, conservatives should just avoid advice from Fred Barnes, who spent most of the year intoning about Mitt Romney’s inevitability and Obama’s pending rendezvous with the ash-heap of history. His cheerleading almost certainly led some conservatives to dismiss the possibility that Obama could win re-election.

Which gets to a somewhat broader point. You would think that after the past year—when conservative media failed its readers, listeners, and viewers—there would be a new push to better inform the people it serves. But this requires some sort of mechanism for accountability. In the absence of that, there’s no incentive for conservative pundits—such as Barnes—to re-evaluate their assumptions about the political landscape and try to give their readers a more accurate depiction of the political landscape.

In other words, a repeat of this year’s failure is far more likely than not.