The only remaining question in the fiscal cliff debate is not if the Republicans will capitulate to higher taxes but when. "I, as a Republican, would take raising the rates on the two top brackets if in return, we had tax reform laid out over a period of months, if we had entitlement reform," said former RNC chairman Haley Barbour, foreshadowing the coming capitulation of House Republicans.
The GOP is rapidly changing from the party of no to the party of maybe. Maybe it will accept tax hikes. Maybe it will accept gay marriage. Maybe it will accept amnesty. Maybe it will change its position on abortion.
Imagine if prominent Democrats, after losing in 2004, had proposed significant changes to four or five major stances of the party. All hell would have broken loose. Instead, Democrats concluded that the problem was not their message but their messenger, and they waited for a better candidate. The party didn't move to the center. If anything, it moved even farther to the left. A San Francisco liberal became speaker of the House and a leftist community organizer became president of the United States.
Unable to show that level of patience or principle, Republicans appear ready to negotiate away much of their platform. A white flag peeks out of their pockets. During the presidential campaign, they said that the federal government "has a spending problem, not a revenue problem." But no sooner had they lost than they accepted politics as a joint search for more government revenue.
A few Republicans still go through the motions of saying that tax hikes are bad for the economy, but that is not a very principled objection to high taxation or a sturdy one, as evident in Barbour's comment (he acknowledges that a tax hike is "bad for jobs and bad for the economy," but would support it anyways). The principled objection to increasing taxation is that it is unjust. For decades, the federal government has taken more in taxes from the people than it needs to perform its legitimate functions. By accepting the lie that the federal government suffers from inadequate revenue, the Republicans show that they accept the Democrats' conception of an unlimited federal government and its use of taxation as an instrument of theft.
Republicans are following, not leading, on what they think is a path to political redemption. But irrelevance is the more likely destination. Given a choice between two liberal parties of varying degrees, the people will choose the more authentic one, as they do in California and Northeastern states. The Scott Brown versus Elizabeth Warren race could become the paradigm of American politics, with the more liberal candidate winning each time.
In the meantime, American political discourse will grow more and more narrow and complacent -- a case of the blind leading the blind. The media already spends most of its energy on trying to reduce the two "reasonable" positions in any given debate down to two barely distinguishable liberal ones. This task will only get easier as the Republicans signal retreat.
On a recent This Week, all the panelists supported gay marriage, including the designated "conservative" ones. George Will, who used to quote Edmund Burke about the dangers of mobs, now prefers to quote pollsters on the "emerging consensus." To the delight of his fellow panelists, he pronounced gay marriage an inevitability: "There is something like an emerging consensus. Quite literally, the opposition to gay marriage is dying. It's old people."
This is exactly what members of the chattering class want to hear and they buzzed over Will's brilliance for a couple of days. But they didn't mention that this expert on the future composition of America had recently predicted a Romney landslide. So he doesn't have his pulse on the present, much less the future. "I'm projecting Minnesota to go for Romney," Will said. Let's see if his "Quite literally, the opposition to gay marriage is dying" prognostication holds up any better. At the very least, it is premature: he didn't mention that thirty-three states have banned gay marriage despite the "emerging consensus."
There is certainly an emerging consensus in the green room of ABC and other networks on that and other issues. But so what? Republicans used to understand that false ideas, even if ostensibly popular and spread by powerful elites, fade and end up discredited. The existence of the Soviet Union was thought to be permanent by the liberal elite; Ronald Reagan said Communism would collapse under the weight of its own lies. His impolitic honesty about that was in the end the best policy and politics -- a lesson waffling Republicans forget at their own peril.