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Why Democrats really want Republicans to cave on taxes

Let’s stipulate something about the current tussle at the edge of the fiscal cliff. President Obama and the Democrats and the media--the champions of expanding the public sector at the expense of the rest of us–are going to win, and the Republicans–the last remaining defenders of the private sector–are going to lose. Taxes will go up on upper-income Americans, and spending will continue to grow–and Republicans will glumly go along with it.

But there are a couple things the GOP establishment might think about, before they capitulate.

The goal of getting Republicans to agree to raise taxes is not to raise new revenues. After all, allowing the Bush tax rates to expire for wealthier Americans will bring in perhaps $67 billion a year; Warren Buffet’s plan for a thirty percent minimum tax rate for millionaires another $5 billion. That’s spit in the ocean compared to annual deficits of $1 trillion and counting–let alone a $16 trillion national debt.

The real goal of getting Republicans to cave on taxes is to detach them from their Tea Party and conservative base, and wreck any chance of a repeat of 2010's GOP surge–not to mention recapturing the White House in 2016. 

And contrary to reports from the media, the goal isn’t “to raise the morale of the middle class”by punishing the rich, or any such class warfare strategy.

The real goal is to detach Republicans from their Tea Party and conservative base, and wreck any chance of a repeat of 2010's GOP surge–not to mention recapturing the White House in 2016. 

What a Republican capitulation on taxes will really mean is a future of political defeats stretching out beyond the horizon, as a disheartened base either stays home or wages bitter Tea Party versus Establishment primary fights like the ones that cost them the Senate this year.

But there’s also more at stake than elections.

What Obama and the Democrats are hoping is that GOP lawmakers will publicly abandon the no-new-taxes pledge they signed as part of their campaigns for office. The media like to blame  Grover Norquist for the pledge, but he was only the instrument, and his Americans for Tax Reform the vehicle, made for the purpose. The pledge was simply a solemn promise to voters that this Republican candidate at least, when he went to Washington, would not be party to stealing more from the private sector in order to grow the welfare state.

The pledge isn’t legally binding. As Vice President Al Gore would say, there’s no governing legal authority enforcing it. The only thing involved is honor, and trust–the honor of the candidate who took the pledge to voters not to raise their taxes, and the trust of voters that this time, unlike with President George “Read My Lips” Bush, they wouldn’t be betrayed again.

Honor and trust. Breaking the no-tax pledge violates both–and it’s hard to see how either ever comes back. And the Democrats know it. That’s why they’ve focused on the pledge. They don’t just want to take away Republicans’ voters; they also want to destroy their sense of honor and integrity. They know it will make Republicans more compliant for future deals, and more alienated than ever from the voters they will need if they ever get another chance to salvage what’s left of this country.

“The greatest way to live with honor,” the playwright Sophocles said, “is to be what we pretend to be.” Republicans have pretended to be the party of no new taxes. Let’s see them live up to it–and by saving their honor maybe they’ll save us all.

Historian Arthur Herman is author "The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization" (Random House 2013).