Forget the fiscal "cliff." The metaphor which best describes the Republican predicament today is: "caught between a rock and a hard place."
In August 2011, Republicans put the full faith and credit of the United States at risk in order to blackmail Democrats into paying ransom on budget cuts the Republican Tea Party wing was demanding. Today, the collateral damage of that Pyrrhic Victory positions Republicans to take the fall should the economy experience a double-dip recession if Republicans and Democrats are unable to agree on the combination of $2 trillion or so in tax hikes and spending cuts by the January 1 deadline to defuse the "austerity bomb" Republicans armed and wired in the first place.
The problem for Republicans is that these are negotiations in which they have nothing to say since their bottom-line, non-negotiable objective - preserving tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans - is not a position they can advocate openly.
And so Republicans are furious with President Obama for not rescuing them from the corner they've painted themselves into by abandoning his own campaign promise to raise taxes on the rich while at the same time giving Republicans political cover by spelling out cuts to Medicare himself.
The only way to appreciate the fix Republicans are in is to consult the conservative blogs.
Republicans have called President Obama's opening offer a "slap in the face" largely because the President had the audacity to govern as a Democrat who'd just been re-elected overwhelmingly and offer a package that contained more Democratic-friendly proposals than Republican ones.
But as John Fund writing in National Review reports, if Republicans give even one inch on taxes there will be hell to pay from the GOP base.
"This is a time of testing for you," say more than 70 conservative leaders in an open letter sent to every GOP member of Congress that Fund says warns if a budget deal raising taxes is passed "with GOP fingerprints on it" the party's conservative base will see to it "that the current leadership is not an acceptable alternative to the left."
The letter goes on to warn that should Republicans abandon the party's non-negotiable demands on taxes, "conservatives would then likely repeat what they did in the 1970s, when they systematically and successfully undertook a multi-year effort to replace Republican congressional leadership."
Fund says that blunt message was "amplified and sharpened" by a separate letter sent to RNC chair Reince Priebus by noted GOP fundraiser Brent Bozell. In that letter, the chairman of ForAmerica writes that while he has spent more than 30 years raising hundreds of millions of dollars for various conservative causes his involvement with the Republican Party would end if the GOP raised taxes.
"Reince, it pains me to say this, but if the Republican Party breaks its word to the American people and goes along with President Obama with tax increases, it will have betrayed conservatives for the final time," writes Bozell.
"I will make it my mission to ensure that every conservative donor to the Republican Party that I have worked with for the last three decades -- and there are many and they have given tens of millions to Republican causes -- gives not one penny more to the Republican Party or any member of Congress that votes for tax increases," Bozell continues.
It goes without saying that what Bozell meant by "the American people" are the 47% who voted Republican and the even smaller 30% who are opposed to tax hikes on the top 2%.
Reading between the lines one also finds the not so subtle warning that if conservatives don't get their way the GOP may face a right wing third party insurrection in the not too distant future.
"Republicans ignore the message at their peril," says Fund, since "the last election showed that many GOP donors are now comfortable with contributing to non-party groups."
In the present negotiations over the debt, Fund says Republicans will be under enormous pressure to go along "with President Obama, the elite media, and much of big business" and approve a budget deal that raises taxes in order to -- you know -- prevent another recession.
But forget all that reality-based stuff about recessions, says Fund. The real danger Republican leaders in Congress need to get their heads around is the "degree to which they risk a civil war over the issue if they break their anti-tax pledge in exchange for another flawed and probably unenforceable budget deal."
The editors of National Review describe in detail the iron prison bars Republicans have fashioned for themselves. Republicans cannot raise taxes on the rich. Neither is it politically sustainable for them to hold middle class taxpayers hostage as a shield preventing taxes from going up on the rich. Worse still, says NRO, would be the perception that Republicans were willing to throw grandma under the bus by exchanging cuts in grandma's Medicare benefits for preservation of the Bush tax cuts for the top 2%.
Given those irreconcilable conditions, Jonathan Chait of New York magazine wonders whether Republicans "can realistically negotiate anything at all."
It is important to remember that negotiations ongoing today are Phase Two of a process that began 18 months ago when House Republicans nearly caused the United States to default on its obligations for the first time in the nation's history. As part of the 2011 Budget Control Act, Republicans were able to secure as ransom for their hostage-taking an immediate agreement from President Obama to reduce spending $1.5 trillion over 10 years -- $1.7 trillion if you count interest, as Jonathan Cohn notes.
Speaker Boehner even gloated at the time that the deal was "all spending cut." And so, when he now complains the President's proposal is lop-sided towards new taxes (trading $400 billion in Medicare savings for $1.6 trillion in new revenues), the Speaker is conveniently forgetting the nearly $2 trillion in Democratic spending concessions that have already been banked.
Cooler heads in the Republican Party may see that their refusal to compromise has them "careening toward a political debacle," says Chait.
But with House Republicans "about as crazed and intransigent" as ever, the only bargains Speaker John Boehner seems able to offer are ones where Republicans demand that victorious Democrats unconditionally surrender to House Republican proposals that make no concessions at all.
Rejecting the President's offer as "not serious," Republicans have counter-offered that the Bush tax cuts would be extended for all income groups; that revenues would be raised only later through "tax reform" but with no amount specified and no trigger identified to enforce it. And in return for these Democratic concessions all scheduled defense cuts would be cancelled, the age for Medicare eligibility would go up and cost of living changes would be made when calculating Social Security benefits.
"This is an almost comical offer," says Chait, "suggesting that Boehner has almost no leeway at this point from his conservatives to make any kind of concessions."
The situation is no better in the Senate where Republican Leader Mitch McConnell is said to have laughed out loud when he saw the President's opening gambit.
Yet, as Steve Benen reports: "Despite an election cycle in which Democrats did very well up and down the ballot, the Senate GOP leader envisions an agreement in which Republicans get the Medicare cuts they want, Republicans get the Social Security cuts they want, and Republicans get the tax rates they want. In exchange, McConnell would give Democrats Mitt Romney's revenue plan. Seriously?"
These are the sort of one-sided proposals you make when you know you are damned if you do and damned if you don't. And so the only advice National Review can give Republicans is to blather the usual boilerplate about avoiding tax increases on anyone, fostering economic growth, reigning in out-of-control spending and countering the "unreasonable zeal of Democrats for higher taxes."
Oh, and hectoring the President for not showing "some leadership," by which they mean Obama doing the Republican's dirty work for them and abandoning his campaign promises in favor of theirs.
Republicans are stuck with a weak hand in these negotiations, and they know it. And so their only play is to find ways to blame Obama for the failures in their own party and the consequences of their own intransigence. That is why Fox News and others are pulling out all the stops to gin up fears of the economic misery that would be unleashed should the parties fail to reach some agreement by the end-of-year deadline.
This is in part what Ed Kilgore says explains Peggy Noonan's most recent column once again "expressing predictable outrage at Barack Obama's refusal to make immediate concessions to congressional Republicans."
In last week's Wall Street Journal, the seriously over-rated Noonan sighs: "Why does it always have to be cliffs with this president? Why is it always a high-stakes battle? Why doesn't he shrewdly re-enact Ronald Reagan, meeting, arguing and negotiating in good faith with Speaker Tip O'Neill, who respected very little of what the president stood for and yet, at the end of the day and with the country in mind, could shake hands and get it done? Why is there never a sense with Mr. Obama that he understands the other guys' real position?"
Noonan's aristocratic tone, petulantly presuming Democratic deference for the demands of a defeated Republican Party, suggests that more is involved here than just negotiating tactics or hardball politics.
In a remarkable riff last week, MSNBC host Chris Matthews wondered aloud if the GOP had become a party entirely committed to the rights of "white men of property" over the freedoms of minority and female voters.
Republicans idolize the Founding Fathers, said Matthews, but not their liberal views about the brotherhood of man or equality among classes. Instead, what Republicans admire most about the Founders was their darker aim to reserve political power to white men of means.
Thus, Republicans really have become a party that believes it is a "ruling class" entitled to positions of power -- just as Ann Romney said when she called it her husband's due, his "destiny," to become President of the United States.
"Why did, why do, the Romney people believe - weeks after the election - that this is their country to rule," Matthews asked. "That there must be some unknown aspect of what just happened that renders it meaningless to them."
Paul Krugman voiced similar misgivings when he wrote that this was "very much an election pitting the interests of the very rich against those of the middle class and the poor." Obama won because he disregarded the warnings of "squeamish centrists" and stressed the class-war aspect of the confrontation.
The important thing to understand now, says Krugman, "is that while the election is over, the class war isn't. The same people who bet big on Mr. Romney, and lost, are now trying to win by stealth - in the name of fiscal responsibility - the ground they failed to gain in an open election."
In many ways, the right wing in America has been engaged in political blackmail from the very moment of the nation's conception.
Indeed, a good example of the kind of politics that produces debt ceiling crises and fiscal cliffs is Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3 of the United States Constitution. That ugly wart on our nation's founding document was the ransom the nation had to pay to white, conservative slave owners as the wages of sin to form a country in the first place -- the section which denominated African slaves (or as the Constitution euphemistically refers to them: "all other persons") as being just three-fifths of a human being.
That is the sort of obscenity you get whenever you allow extremists to dictate the terms of your national existence, as Republicans are attempting to do now.
To the victors go the spoils, as they say. But somehow Republicans still have it in their head that they are in charge.
And so if you listen to Republicans warn about the looming dangers of the "fiscal cliff," you'd think Republican recalcitrance and irresponsibility are the "givens" victorious Democrats are obliged to factor into all their equations. You'd also think that all Barack Obama really earned by winning the last election was the obligation to help the GOP escape from the consequences of its own ridiculous pledge to never, ever, under any circumstances raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans.
And so, it is Democrat's refusal to accommodate the presumptuous demands the GOP is making that defines what Republicans really mean when the speak of the Democratic Party's divisive "partisanship" or President Obama's failure to "lead."