How to Solve the Fiscal Cliff? Start With a Gag Order

Since election day, our polarized political parties have been sparring over the fiscal cliff in public. We’ve been treated to press conferences and campaign-style events, offers and counteroffers. The result has been very little, if any, tangible progress.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. Public discussions encourage posturing and allow die-hards to strangle compromise in its cradle. If the leaders of the parties are serious about reaching an agreement (some of their troops are not), they’ll have to shift course and enter into private, face-to-face negotiations, during which they would agree to cease tattling to the press about the transgressions of the other side. President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner will have to take the lead, as they did in the famously abortive “grand bargain” talks of 2011.

It’s understandable why both of them might be reluctant to go down this path again. Last year’s talks produced intra-party conflicts among Republicans that Boehner found hard to manage. For his part, the president reportedly believes that it was a mistake to closet himself with the Speaker and that only constant public pressure can induce the Republicans to abandon extreme positions.

But much has changed for each of them over the past fifteen months. Some of the early Tea Party fervor has cooled, and the House Republicans are more unified around Boehner’s leadership. Despite a brutal campaign, they suffered only modest losses and comfortably retained their majority. Both Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan signed onto his latest proposal, which included $800 billion in new revenues over the next decade. There are still limits on how far Boehner can go: Some conservative Republicans have been vocally unhappy about Boehner’s offer of new revenue, and also his treatment of dissidents in committee assignments. Still, he speaks for his party to a greater extent than heretofore.

As for Obama, he was right to think that the mobilization of the public was a necessary condition of success. But he achieved that objective in the 2012 election: The people have endorsed higher taxes on the wealthy, and they are prepared to hold the Republicans responsible for the breakdown of fiscal cliff talks. A continued public campaign will not do much more to strengthen his hand. His task is to convert political gains into policy accomplishments.

Obama believes that the voters endorsed his fiscal views over Romney’s, and he’s right. In a parliamentary system, that would be dispositive. In James Madison’s system, it isn’t. Boehner believes that the voters rejected Democratic assaults on his caucus, reelecting almost all of them, and that he represents a different majority with equal constitutional standing. The president may force the Republicans to yield on the Bush tax cuts for high-income earners. But with the debt ceiling looming, Republicans will have leverage as well in the next few months. Unless Obama can divide and conquer his Republican opposition, he will have to reach an agreement with them on a range of spending and revenue issues.

While their positions are far apart, each side has put its opening bid on the table, and neither is likely to take another step unilaterally. It’s time to negotiate face to face: Only that process can allow the parties to explore options unpopular with their bases, assess one another’s sincerity, and build a modicum of trust. Regardless of which high-level figures are chosen to participate, they should agree to convene three times a week, with intensive staff work between meetings. And they should agree not to litigate their differences in public as long as the discussions continue.

There’s no guarantee of success, of course. Face to face talks are a necessary but not sufficient condition of agreement. In the end, one or both sides may prefer no agreement to accepting the other’s best and final offer.

In wasn’t easy to bridge the partisan divide during the 1980s and 1990s, and the polarizing trends of the past two decades have made it ever more difficult today. Nonetheless, our leaders have a duty to try. And the time to begin is now.