Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

GOP must avoid the fiscal cliff

By William J. Bennett, CNN Contributor
updated 12:13 PM EST, Wed November 21, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • William Bennett: Plunging off the fiscal cliff should be the GOP's last resort
  • Bennett: Republicans may have to compromise on tax rates for the wealthiest
  • He says compromises do not mean capitulation to the Democrats
  • Bennett: GOP should go on offense with a serious, comprehensive budget plan

Editor's note: William J. Bennett, a CNN contributor, is the author of "The Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood." He was U.S. secretary of education from 1985 to 1988 and director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H.W. Bush.

(CNN) -- After much introspection, the GOP faces its first true post-election test: the so-called fiscal cliff. Will House Republicans hold out against President Barack Obama's tax hike demands, or will they be willing to make a deal?

Plunging off the fiscal cliff should be the GOP's last possible resort, even if that means making a "grand bargain" first. If Republicans are seen (or portrayed in the media) as purposely trying to push the country toward the fiscal cliff for political reasons, then it will only further affirm the "47%" stereotype that has haunted the party.

According to the 2012 exit polls, Obama won voters who said a candidate who "cares about people" is their most important quality by a dumbfounding 81% to 18%.

William J. Bennett
William J. Bennett

Republicans must change this narrative, and they can't if they rely solely on resistance to tax hikes. While tax hikes alone on the richest Americans will not solve the debt problem or avert the fiscal cliff -- a point Republicans rightly make -- neither will the status quo.

Instead, Republicans should go on offense with a serious, comprehensive budget plan that will educate the public to the larger conservative principles of fiscal responsibility and governance, even if it means compromising on tax rates for the wealthiest Americans.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Some conservatives will disagree about this for some legitimate reasons. Yet if Republicans spend the next two months on their heels defending the current tax rates for the wealthy, they will lose the issue. The 2012 election taught us that class warfare is a powerful tactic if not properly rebutted. Obama was able to paint Republicans as defenders of the rich who did not care about the poor and middle classes. The Republican response was inadequate.

This time around Republicans must educate the public as to how their plan to avoid a fiscal cliff -- preventing tax hikes, cutting the deficit and saving eroding social safety nets for those who need it most -- actually protects the poor and middle classes. And that the president's intransigence on tax hikes and inability to lead on budget or entitlement reforms will hurt the poor and middle classes the most in the long run.

The Republicans can take the lead and offer a framework structured around the Simpson-Bowles commission and Rep. Paul Ryan's plan on Medicare reform.

Mayors urge fiscal cliff compromise
Progress made in fiscal cliff talks

Compromise, however, does not mean capitulation. Republicans can distinguish, as British politician Duff Cooper said, between the willingness in principle to compromise and the willingness to compromise on principle.

First, and most importantly, Republicans must insist on real, tangible spending cuts (not cuts in the rate of growth) that commence immediately. They cannot make the same mistake that Ronald Reagan and the GOP made in the early 1980s. Reagan agreed to a "balanced" approach in the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982 that should have amounted to $3 in spending cuts for every $1 in tax increases. As we know, the tax hikes came, but the spending cuts never followed.

If Republicans do compromise on tax rates, it should only be to return those making more than $500,000 a year to just below Clinton-era rates (39.6% for the highest-earning married household). The tax hike should be temporary and tied directly to the spending cuts. Without the cuts, the tax hike would be void. Other revenue options could be on the table as well, such as closing loopholes or capping deductions for highest earners. These measures could be partly offset by cutting the corporate tax rate, which many Republicans and Democrats already agree on.

Next comes entitlement reform. Ryan and Democrat Sen. Ron Wyden had partnered together in the past to propose a bipartisan premium support alternative to Medicare (while keeping the option of traditional Medicare). House Republicans can also push a Social Security overhaul through raising the retirement age and offer revenues in the form of means testing for Medicare and Social Security.

There is optimism for such a deal. Ryan returns to the House with more gravitas and credibility than he had during last year's debt-ceiling standoff. In the 2012 presidential election exit polls, Mitt Romney and Ryan won a majority of voters over the age of 45. One could argue that Ryan's Medicare reform was in fact a winning issue and not the death knell its critics claimed it would be.

Additionally, 20 Democrat Senate seats are up for grabs in 2014, compared with 13 Republican seats. Among the Democrats up for re-election are senators in traditionally red states, such as Mark Pryor in Arkansas and Mary Landrieu in Louisiana. Others up for re-election such as Mark Warner in Virginia and Kay Hagan in North Carolina are under pressure to avoid the massive defense sequestration cuts that would accompany a fiscal plunge. Republicans can exercise leverage here.

Certainly, such a compromise or grand bargain may fail regardless of Republican efforts. Democrats may resist serious spending cuts and entitlement reforms. But regardless, Republicans must demonstrate to the American people that they did everything they could to avert the fiscal cliff for the sake of all Americans -- schools, churches, communities, individuals and families included -- not just businesses and corporations.

To paraphrase British philosopher Jeremy Bentham, the way to appear to love people is to love them in reality. Republican fiscal policy can be both principled and caring at the same time.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of William J. Bennett.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
updated 6:48 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
updated 4:49 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
updated 7:03 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT