With congressional negotiations at a virtual standstill, the United States continues to careen towards the proverbial fiscal cliff. The consequences of failing to avert this entirely self-inflicted but very real crisis are not entirely certain, but it is incontrovertible that draconian spending cuts and considerable tax increases will occur almost immediately, which collectively threaten to derail the country's gradual recovery from the Great Recession.
If lawmakers do, in fact, drive the nation off the cliff, here are your top five most blameworthy culprits.
5. George W. Bush
For those of you who honestly think the statute of limitations on "blame Bush" has run, think again. Many of the central controversies at the core of the current debate, namely military spending cuts and the expiration of Bush-era tax cuts, are directly linked to his regime, and American politics is still, to a large extent, informed by the ethos erected by the Bush administration.
Republicans decry harsh military cuts in large part because, in addition to uncertainty in North Africa, the Middle East, and possibly (though improbably) China, war games initiated during the Bush years (i.e. Afghanistan and Iraq) have not yet concluded. Meanwhile, the Bush tax cuts are collectively a huge deficit driver and perhaps the fundamental sticking point between congressional Democrats and Republicans: the former want to see tax cuts for higher brackets expire, whereas the latter are historically hostile to any new revenue.
4. Rep. Eric Cantor
Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the House majority leader, has consistently challenged Speaker Boehner and undermined his leadership. From directly contradicting Boehner before the president to acquiescing to the much-feared sequester, Cantor has been a driving force of negativity in the House.
Though Boehner remains the face of Republican negotiations with the White House, Cantor continually appears more interested in potentially usurping Boehner's position and maintaining his clout with the reactionary Tea Party sect than in brokering a meaningful deal.
3. Grover Norquist
This unelected, unaccountable lobbyist who gleefully flaunts his iron grip on most congressional Republicans is a critical architect of Washington's current politically polarized condition.
Norquist assumes incredible authority in GOP circles and makes it his priority to enforce party homogeneity on such sacrosanct issues as taxation under threat of initiating and funding primary challenges. Indeed, just as he is impeding substantive progress on the fiscal cliff, Norquist's machinations helped protract the 2011 debt ceiling debate, which resulted in an unprecedented U.S. credit downgrade.
Although some prominent Republicans recently and publicly repudiated Norquist and his pledge, he still controls much of the GOP, particularly the freshman Republicans who rode a widespread, if fleeting, anti-Obama wave to office in 2010.
2. Speaker John Boehner
With Mitt Romney's crushing defeat in November, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) remained the most prominent and influential Republican politician in the country, and as such it was and is contingent on him to help broker the best possible deal. Inevitably, this would involve controlling the outspoken and rebellious Tea Party faction in the House, which had long been the principal source of congressional gridlock.
Unfortunately, in a major setback for the Republican leader, last week Boehner failed to rally enough GOP support for his Plan B. Intraparty intransigence forced Boehner to pull the bill, and he all but ceded responsibility to the Senate.
As the leader of an embattered party, Boehner desperately needed a victory to cement both his own legacy and ensure the viability of his brand in the future. Sadly, this country club Republican could not exercise the requisite leadership and must now adjust to a weakened office and contend with a suspicious caucus.
1. President Barack Obama
I must first qualify this selection with my belief that it is time to reevaluate standard conceptions of presidential power. The traditional Neustadtian understanding of presidential power, or otherwise that involving implementing prestige and reputation in the context of the bargaining process, seems to have dissipated in our high-tech era of hyperpartisanship. This is especially apparent given the Republican Party's singular desire to discredit and defeat President Obama as often and as completely as possible.
That said, using merely President Obama's bargaining power as the focus of this analysis, he fails mightily. Though he is neither the cause of America's economic troubles nor the direct creator of its political gridlock, the president has nevertheless failed to foster the kind of professional relationships in Congress necessary for constructive growth and progress. The president absolutely must have the capacity to exercise his power and exert his will on even the most adamant. He failed in 2011 by capitulating to Republican pressure and passing the Budget Control Act — which consists entirely of $1.2 trillion in spending cuts — and he appears to be failing in this latest iteration.
President Reagan was successful because he enjoyed a strong working relationship with legendary Speaker Tip O'Neill. President Clinton, meanwhile, relished interacting with the various personalities on Capitol Hill, even as they relentlessly tried to destroy him. These leadership styles contrast sharply with Obama's aloofness and aversion to extricating himself from his tight nucleus of trusted advisers. Ultimately, his detachment may adversely affect the nation's fiscal situation.