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Beware the fiscal cliff deniers

By John Avlon, CNN Contributor
December 4, 2012 -- Updated 1431 GMT (2231 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • John Avlon says a combination of tax increases, budget cuts could harm economy
  • He says the fiscal cliff is being minimized by partisans on left and the right
  • Newt Gingrich, Paul Krugman among those saying a deal to avert cliff isn't urgent
  • Avlon: This is the kind of extreme thinking that led the U.S. to lose its AAA credit rating

Editor's note: John Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He is co-editor of the book "Deadline Artists: America's Greatest Newspaper Columns." He is a regular contributor to "Erin Burnett OutFront" and is a member of the OutFront Political Strike Team. For more political analysis, tune in to "Erin Burnett OutFront" at 7 ET weeknights.

(CNN) -- Washington is playing chicken with the fiscal cliff -- the combination of automatic tax hikes and deep spending cuts in 2013 that could plummet our recovering economy back into recession. Brinksmanship is back while the clock ticks.

Responsible voices in both parties say they don't want the country to go over the cliff, and Republicans have just offered their own outline of a plan to counter the president's opening bid. (Both sides have rejected those opening offers.)

There is danger ahead -- a growing chorus of ideological activists on both sides who insist there is no reason to fear going over the fiscal cliff, if the cliff exists at all.

John Avlon
John Avlon

Call them The Cliff-Deniers. Some say that there is no fiscal cliff, just a slope, perhaps suitable for sledding into the New Year. Others argue that plummeting over the side is preferable to an impure deal that compromises the views of their key constituencies.

It's déjà vu all over again. Listening to all-or-nothing advocates got us into this mess in the first place, leading directly to the loss of America's AAA credit rating. Listening to them again would be the definition of insanity -- doing the same thing over again and expecting a different result.

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On the right are folks such as Newt Gingrich, who penned an extended blogpost to that effect: "Every time you hear 'fiscal cliff,' just remember it is an artificial invention of the Left," he wrote -- "a mythical threat which can only be solved by Republicans surrendering their principles and abandoning their allies."

On the left are voices such as The New York Times' Paul Krugman who argued in a column called "Let's Not Make a Deal" that the president should "just say no, and go over the cliff if necessary" rather than what he characterizes as an economic "hostage-taking" approach to negotiation by the GOP.

"It's worth pointing out that the fiscal cliff isn't really a cliff," Krugman continued. "Nothing very bad will happen to the economy if agreement isn't reached until a few weeks or even a few months into 2013. So there's time to bargain. ... So stand your ground, Mr. President, and don't give in to threats. No deal is better than a bad deal."

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Republican deal rejected by W.H.

This created the odd spectacle of bloggers at RedState.com applauding Paul Krugman. True, they were careful to call him "both an inveterate liar and relentlessly wrong" before saying "in the main he is right" on this issue. "There is no Fiscal Cliff that demands action by a lame duck Congress. ... A deal against your own interests is not a deal, it is capitulation."

It's interesting how hyperpartisans can sometimes echo each other, if only because they share a vision of American politics that is intensely ideological, imagining a country deeply divided between liberals and conservatives. The problem with this vision is not just that it is unrepresentative of the moderate majority of Americans, but because the final cleansing ideological Armageddon they imagine never comes.

We need to find a way to govern again, but folks on the far left and far right are quick to cannibalize their own party members who work to constructively across the aisle.

Conservative activist groups such as Americans for Prosperity criticized the House Republican outline for ceding too much ground on tax revenues. Then there's the AARP, running ads that urge its members to "Tell Washington: We Can Do Better Than a Last-Minute Deal."

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The problem, of course, is that this is not a last-minute problem, but something predictable and self-inflicted. A failure to deal with the fiscal cliff is a failure of the political willingness to compromise. Everyone knows the outlines of a reasonable compromise: spending cuts, revenue increases and entitlement reform. A last-minute deal, at least a patch on the problem until more fundamental reforms can be achieved, is necessary.

Republicans rolled the dice when they walked away from the Obama-Boehner Grand Bargain in the summer of 2011. They lost. Obama won.

Yes, the White House can be faulted for its fixation on raising top rates in the name of fairness rather than national sacrifice to the goal of long-term economic stability. But CNN polls show that a clear majority of Americans back the Obama administration's plan rather than limiting deductions that could impact the middle class.

Republican Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma made the most sense when he said the GOP should make sure that lower tax rates don't expire on 98% of Americans at year's end. But in the current cult-like environment, Cole's common sense perspective was deemed traitorous.

In times of tough negotiation, it can be tempting to listen to the siren songs of hyperpartisans who promise that better things can be achieved through the power of no.

iReport: From my home to the House -- how to fix the fiscal cliff

But we have seen deficit reduction plans from Bowles-Simpson to the Gang of Six to the Grand Bargain to the Super-Committee fail because partisan absolutists said those balanced plans weren't good enough. That all-or-nothing approach is what has led us to this fiscal cliff.

These extreme voices aren't interested in reducing the deficit or debt. They are interested in either ruling or ruining. They are the problem in our politics, and they have completely misread the moderate mandate of the 2012 election. In this high-stakes negotiation, with America's economic recovery hanging in the balance, the cliff deniers are the ones who must be denied.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.

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