Can We All Please Stop Laughing at Joe Biden?

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By Ramesh Ponnuru and Margaret Carlson

This is part of a continuing dialogue between Margaret Carlson and Ramesh Ponnuru about Washington politics.

Ramesh: One odd feature of this deal, Margaret, illustrates why Republicans prefer to deal with Vice President Joe Biden over President Barack Obama -- beyond the latter's tendency to waste negotiating time lecturing them.

It was important to Biden that the government make up for delaying the sequester with revenue increases as well as spending cuts, but he didn't much care what form those revenue increases took. Republicans proposed fiddling with the rules for IRAs in a way that raises revenues over the next few years but cuts taxes over the long run. Biden agreed. So the GOP's apparent concession was actually a victory (albeit a tiny one).

The deal as a whole looks highly favorable to Republicans so long as it's compared to where the law was scheduled to take the budget. It looks bad for them only if it's compared to an alternative in which Republicans somehow force the White House and Senate to agree to extend the Bush tax rates on everyone and cut spending too. It contains less revenue than House Speaker John Boehner's opening bid the day after the election, and it shields all but 0.7 percent of Americans from higher income-tax rates.

If I were a liberal I would be furious. One interesting question: Did the deal take this form simply because Obama is spineless, as a lot of them are complaining, or because Republicans had more leverage than many people thought?

I don't think Obama suddenly lost his nerve in agreeing to this deal. Rumors abound that he was signaling early to selected Republicans that he could live with a final outcome that shielded people making less than $400,000 or so from higher income tax rates. Some congressional Democrats did not want to raise rates on people making $250,000 even though Obama had campaigned on the idea.

I do think Democrats have made one major miscalculation. The pro-deal Democrats think that they have set a precedent for getting Republicans to agree to future tax increases -- that Grover Norquist's pledge is dead. This is a fantasy. This tax increase happened only because a bigger one was scheduled to take place. Republicans are not going to vote affirmatively to raise taxes, especially after taxes just rose. The deal makes future tax increases less likely, not more.

Both parties have a political interest in not seeing middle-class taxes rise. Republicans have an ideological interest in it too, because without middle-class tax increases there will have to be big entitlement cuts in the future. In that respect too, this deal is a win for conservatives, even if we are going to be complaining about how big a tax increase is still being allowed to go forward.

Happy new year, Margaret! But not for liberals, I'm afraid. Your post-election euphoria should now be over.

(Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him in Twitter.)

Margaret: So over the cliff the country went -- and I didn’t feel a thing. It wasn’t because I was numb from New Year’s champagne but because this overhyped story ended with a whimper, not a bang.

There was one thrilling moment: when the president threw a few darts on New Year's Eve that ticked off congressional Republicans. "One thing we can count on with respect to this Congress," he said, "is that if there is even one second left before you have to do what you're supposed to do, they will use that last second."

Speaking of making fun, could we stop (at least for a moment) laughing at Vice President Biden? Obama has called on him whenever he has had a tough decision to make. The president sometimes listens, as he eventually did on Afghanistan. But Biden can also go his own way, or seem to, as he did on gay marriage,  a departure that eventually worked to the president’s benefit.

The vice president spent 36 years on the Hill, often quoting his Dad and his Mom and (mostly) endearing himself to his colleagues. Look around up there and you won’t see many like him. His good humor and trustworthiness are such that that when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell could barely stand the sight of Majority Leader Harry Reid, he called his old friend Joe. In the land where no one is talking, the man who talks a lot is king.

I’m not saying Biden worked a miracle. He just worked out a deal, which seems like a miracle these days. Watching him practice shuttle diplomacy in Washington was far more engrossing than watching the ball drop in Times Square.

You rightly note that both sides had an interest in not seeing middle-class taxes rise, but you leave out that Republicans had a single-minded interest in not seeing upper-class taxes rise. They were willing to let the former rise to protect the latter, if that’s what it came to. You’re also right the deal is a bit of a euphoria-killer for progressive Democrats when you consider that the president agreed to a smaller tax increase than he campaigned on. With more leverage than he may ever have, Obama once again walked off the car lot paying almost sticker price.

The difference between us, Ramesh, is that you think this weakens him. I think it stiffens his resolve over the debt limit -- where he has the high ground.

On last night’s vote, House Republicans had the cover -- however pathetic -- of Norquist. He doesn’t want to have his pledge tested; enforcement would be a chore. Norquist is keeping his hold on Republicans by declaring victory so that he doesn’t have to try to defeat the 40 Republican senators and 85 Republican House members who theoretically broke the pledge. He has officially given Republicans a pass for voting to “cut” taxes on 99.3 percent of Americans.

No one will feel euphoric, but everyone will be crowing today. Republicans prevented a tax increase for all but 0.7 percent of taxpayers. Democrats got to beat the lower chamber with the upper chamber (and how the lower one resents that), and they got the first significant tax increase on the wealthy since 1990.

We’ll see who comes out with more mojo when the battle over debt-ceiling limit starts in earnest. Ramesh, you don't really think refusing to pay debts legally incurred -- with the full agreement of Congress -- is a legitimate way to control spending, do you?

(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow her on Twitter.)

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-0- Jan/02/2013 15:30 GMT