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Peering over the cliff

Nov 9, 2012 - By Steven R. Peck

With Obama re-elected, Republicans must find a new focus for the next four years

Campaigning for an election can be habit forming. Once the long, drawn-out, intense, combative and emotional journey to the election is over, it can take awhile to break the habits formed on the campaign trail.

The point was proved almost immediately after Tuesday's general election, when Republicans in Congress sparred with the newly re-elected President Obama about whether the election outcome put the president in a stronger position on the issue of the so-called "fiscal cliff." That's the nickname for circumstances put in place earlier this year that call for automatic, across-the-board budget cuts in the federal government, along with the repeal of widespread tax cuts enacted during the previous administration.

Allowing both to occur as of Jan. 1 would, some say, push the national economy over a "fiscal cliff" that would shock consumers and markets and destabilize the American economy. The plan was put in place as a way to put off the hard decisions on what to do about the federal budget deficit until after the election.

Congressional Republicans accepted the timetable as part of a political gamble. They assumed that "after the election" would mean after Mitt Romney had been elected and after the GOP had retaken control of the U.S. Senate. While the presidential election always was seen as tight, when the timeline was put in place over the summer, Republican control of the Senate seemed likely. Either of those outcomes would have put Republicans in a dominant position when negotiations on the fiscal cliff resumed.

Instead, the president was re-elected. Democrats actually gained two more seats to strengthen their Senate majority. The climate of the deficit talks won't be what House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had in mind.

In 2010 McConnell made a famous speech in which he said his party's singular objective over the subsequent two years would be to deny Barack Obama a second term as president. Not fix the economy. Not improve the health care system. Not combat terrorism. Not end the war in Afghanistan. Defeat President Obama.

That no longer can be anyone's top priority. Working to ensure that Barack Obama will be out of office four years from now is moot. He will be gone after 2016. He can't run again. The U.S. Constitution ensures that.

Obstruction in order to buy time, which the GOP practiced and nearly perfected over the past four years, isn't much of an ambition anymore. And, with economic recovery already under way and likely to continue to some degree more or less on its own between now and 2016 (that natural progression was the basis for Romney's 12 million new jobs claim; the economy already is on pace to do that), and with the changing voter demographics that helped Obama win in 2012 certain to be even more evolved in 2016, there are some built-in advantages for the next Democratic nominee for president, no matter who it is.

Republicans now have a decision to make, not just on this issue but on the next four years in general. Can they break the habit? Can they focus on something other than denying the president a second term and focus instead on trying to salvage something for themselves from that second term?

Finding a way to work with Obama on steering the nation away from the fiscal cliff is a place to begin.

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