In the wrangle over America's Fiscal Cliff, Barack Obama holds all the cards

There is no incentive for the Democrats to be conciliatory on the budget negotiations; nor, after the last few years of partisan bad feeling, will there be much inclination among them to do so.

As of now, it looks like the US will go off the so-called “fiscal cliff” tonight at midnight. Several days of extraordinary manoeuvring on and around Capitol Hill in Washington have so far resulted in no deal, and with one day left to galvanise America's behemoth political machinery the chances of one looks slimmer and slimmer.

This means that previously agreed measures (under a deal resolved with a kick-the-can-down-the-road Budgetary Control Act in 2011) will slot into place at midnight, removing a whole raft of tax breaks as well and making sadistically deep cuts to federal spending.

At a glance, it is hard to see why the Republicans are trying to make a deal at all. After all, weren't vicious spending cuts exactly what Romney and Ryan spent an election campaign demanding?

Part of the reason is, however, that the Republicans are afraid of public backlash. A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll found that almost twice as many people blamed the Congressional Republicans for the fiscal cliff than the President; a PEW/Washington Post poll from earlier this month said the same. If the country goes off the cliff, the mid-term elections are going to be very hard on the GOP.

Looked at in detail, going off the cliff looks very unpleasant indeed. Sure, it will cut 607 billion dollars from the national deficit – according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office – but its effects on people directly are brutal. Tax breaks for parents will be halved and the Earned Income Tax Credit will go, affecting low and middle-income workers. A 2% payroll tax break for workers will vanish. Capital gains tax will increase, as well as the tax paid on dividends.

Dramatically, more than 40% of the five million people who have been unemployed for longer than six months will lose their unemployment benefits. There will also be cuts to tax credits for families paying college tuition. High-earning Americans won't escape bracing tax hikes either, especially those who earn more than a million dollars a year.

On top of that, all federal services, from roads to schools to homeland security – with a few exceptions including Medicaid and veterans benefits – face cuts, and perhaps redundancies. The defence budget in particular will be hit very hard, and of course that will have a knock-on effect on the vast number of tertiary industries employed by the Pentagon. All of this, experts agree, will hit the stock market hard, perhaps plunging the country back into recession.

Congress, like schoolchildren, have put off doing their homework until the very last minute, and Senators have been told not to make new years' eve plans. This is going right down to the wire: if a deal is going to be reached, it has to happen today.

It is very possible – almost probable – that America will go over the cliff; but – whisper it – it might not actually be so bad. Many of the harsher of these measures can and almost certainly will be reversed straight out of the gate; and the cuts in federal spending are due to be staggered over the course of the next decade. Obama has already stated that if the country goes off the cliff, then the Senate – controlled by Democrats – would act to pass emergency measures to prevent the loss of unemployment benefits and tax increases on lower-income families. In doing so, he would look like the hero. Certainly, there is no incentive for the Democrats to be conciliatory; nor, after the last few years of partisan bad feeling, will there be much inclination among them to do so.

Politically, Obama is holding most of the cards. The situation is lose-lose for the Republican party. If the country goes off the cliff, the House's Republican Speaker John Boehner and his party will probably be percieved as responsible for it – and are going to be forced into helping the Democrats clean up some of the mess. If it doesn't happen, the President is likely to get the credit. Boehner tried to re-cast this narrative with him as the problem solver with his alternative, the so-called “plan B” - but it was a flop, ridiculed by the Democrats and the media.

Now, he and his Congressional colleagues are scrabbling for anything they can to make the deal palatable to Republicans but still acceptable to the Democrats. They aren't being handed many scraps.

Barack Obama returns to Washington. Photo: Getty

Nicky Woolf is reporting for the New Statesman from the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide