What was somewhat clear already has become a lot clearer: There is a significant constituency among Congressional Democrats that was already uncomfortable with the $250,000 threshold and wanted to push it higher — all the way to a million dollars, if a certain influential New York Senator had his way — and the possibility that these Democrats might go wobbly in a post-cliff scenario gave the White House a reason (or an excuse) to concede ground that Obama had once promised to defend unstintingly. Nor is this tax-wary caucus likely to grow weaker with time: It exists because many Democratic lawmakers represent (and are funded by) a lot of affluent professionals in wealthy, high-cost-of-living states, and that relationship is only likely to loom larger if current demographic and political trends persist. Is a Democratic Party that shies away from raising taxes on the $250,000-a-year earner (or the $399,999-a-year earner, for that matter) in 2013 — when those increases are happeningly automatically! — really going to find it easier to raise taxes on families making $110,000 in 2017 or 2021? Color me skeptical: The lesson of these negotiations seems to be that Democrats are still skittish about anything that ever-so-remotely resembles a middle class tax increase, let alone the much larger tax increases (which would eventually have to hit people making well below $100,000 as well) that their philosophy of government ultimately demands.
Agreeing that the New Year’s bargain bodes ill for the liberal vision of government doesn’t require believing that Paul Ryan’s vision of government is poised to triumph instead. Here I agree with Scheiber: Because Social Security and Medicare are so popular, the right-wing path to fiscal sustainability does sometimes have an air of fantasy about it. It’s just that on the evidence of what the Obama White House and Senate Democrats have been willing to concede this week, the left-wing path to solvency looks pretty implausible right now as well.