This week I shared the second part of my ongoing argument that the “fiscal cliff” debate is only superficially about tax rates for the wealthy. The core of the conflict is about entitlement spending: namely, how much President Obama is willing to cut, and, relatedly, how much House Republicans will demand in exchange for higher revenues.

And so it was with a great sense of personal disappointment that I read this Jennifer Rubin post, headlined, “It’s not the taxes.” That Rubin — who was so profoundly and consistently wrong about so many things this past election cycle — and I are roughly on the same page forces me to rethink things.

Then again, just as Rubin was an unofficial mouthpiece for the Romney campaign, it’s safe to assume she’s now a regular conduit for House GOP spin. There might be something to learn from Rubin between the lines. Is there a pattern to what she’s being fed?


Now, however, that the GOP is willing to deal on taxes, Obama is being cornered on spending. It is significant that in every public utterance House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) pressures the president on spending cuts.


Alas, the president now has to decide. Can he still blame the Republicans for failing to make a deal when even the Gray Lady can see significant revenue is on the table? Hmm. Can he escape agreement on real entitlement reforms, which involves taking on his own side, or can he get away with cosmetic, phony cuts (squeezing providers is always a meaningless gesture, soon to be repealed down the road)? … Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) had the courage to take on the loudest voices in his base. Is the president just a less responsible pol? It sure looks that way.


It seems like the only people inside the Beltway who want to make a deal on the fiscal cliff are House Republicans and some responsible Senate Republicans, such as Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.).

The message that Republicans are conveying, via the likes of Rubin and also their own public pronouncements, indicates an overarching strategy of downplaying the issue of taxes (we’ve put the revenue on the table; next question!) and highlighting instead the issue of spending. The problem, right now, is that the “fiscal cliff” has become synonymous in the media with taxes.

What to do?

Slate’s Dave Weigel reports on the “doomsday scenario” that’s slowly coming into focus:

[Y]ou’re starting to hear Republicans say two things. One: They are not going to allow anything like the debt limit increase to be traded away in a deal, not just to beat the December 31 deadline. Two: They don’t agree that they’d be blamed, in the long-term, for “going over the cliff.” They’ve consistently said that a presidential “failure of leadership” caused the impasse, and they believe that the effects of any downturn would be blamed, by the public, on the president.

Take the spin that’s being spoonfed to Rubin and trial balloons floated in other media, and you can suss out a gameplan: Republicans may decide to simply skip the “fiscal cliff” and shift into a debt-ceiling showdown, where they believe the terrain is more favorable. They want this to be about spending, and, unlike the fiscal cliff, the debt-ceiling is a better framework for that kind of argument.

I think I’m half-right: this isn’t all about spending — yet. And Republicans may have a plan to make it about spending by going over the cliff.

Alas, I wish I was completely wrong.