Like most conservatives, I don't want to see Republicans cave in to President Obama's demands for higher taxes. Nor do I think they should strike a grand bargain, trading tax hikes for spending cuts. Whenever such deals have been struck in the past, we've gotten the higher taxes without the promised reductions in spending.
At the same time, though, the conservative arguments for how Republicans can get everything they want from Obama -- if only they stand firm -- are thoroughly unconvincing.
This week, for instance, Marc Thiessen delighted many conservatives by laying out a case for how Republicans could enact fundamental tax and entitlement reform by simply refusing to surrender. But the assumptions he made about how Obama (and the public) would react to such a course of action by Republicans are completely divorced from reality.
As part of his strategy, Thiessen argued for Republicans to stand their ground on taxes, even if it means going over the "fiscal cliff" and allowing taxes to go up on everybody. "In the short term, Americans may blame you," Thiessen wrote in the Washington Post. "You can recover from that. What you will never recover from is surrendering your principles and giving up your brand as the party of low taxes and limited government."
What Thiessen neglects to consider, however, is the effect on that low-tax brand from letting everyone's taxes go up on Jan. 1. At that point, Obama can go on television and demand a $3.7 trillion tax cut for 98 percent of Americans. What happens to the brand if Republicans oppose a tax cut for the middle class because it doesn't also lower rates on those with the highest incomes?
What happens when Harry Reid holds a vote on a bill that lowers rates on the middle class? Will Republican senators vote against it? If so, their challengers can run ads attacking them for voting against a massive middle-class tax cut. What does that do to the brand? And when, in all likelihood, such a bill passes with near-unanimous support in the Senate, what does it do to the House GOP's low-tax brand if their members resist, bottle up or vote against the same tax cut?
The time for Republicans to win the tax debate was during the 2012 election. They lost. That doesn't mean they need to give away the store, but it does mean that they'll have to make some accommodation for reality.
Republicans' best option at this point is to make Bush-era tax rates permanent for income under $250,000. This would keep things relatively simple, and it wouldn't necessitate giving in to Obama's demands for larger tax increases in the name of making inconsequential tweaks to entitlement programs.
Though far from the ideal outcome, it would have some silver linings. It's important to remember that in terms of dollar value, a permanent extension of most rates is worth more to taxpayers over time than a temporary extension of all of them. Also, permanency for most tax brackets would mean that the Congressional Budget Office's revenue baseline, against which all tax policy is measured, would no longer be based on the unrealistic assumption that all Bush tax cuts are going to expire in the near future and bring in a flood of revenue. We'd finally have a real-world demonstration that getting rid of the Bush rates on higher incomes isn't going to change the nation's long-term debt picture.
The "no surrender" strategy is always tempting for conservatives, because they can usually score points for ideological purity without any downside. Two things are certain in Washington: 1) The "no surrender" caucus is always ignored when the two sides cut a deal, and 2) The deal is always suboptimal. Over time, as the problems with the deal become apparent, people who opposed it feel vindicated.
Conservatives are understandably angered by the bloodlust that Obama has for successful Americans and by Republicans' feckless attempts to counter him. But this still doesn't justify wishful thinking.
Philip Klein (pklein@washington examiner.com) is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Examiner. Follow him on Twitter at @philipaklein.