WASHINGTON WATCH ROUNDTABLE: Who Is Willing To Compromise To Avoid The Fiscal Cliff

Roland Martin and the Washington Watch roundtable discuss the fiscal cliff debate and who will bend to avoid taxes going up on every American Jan. 1, 2013.

This week’s Washington Watch roundtable features Angela Rye, executive director and general counsel for the Congressional Black Caucus; Elroy Sailor, co-founder and CEO of the J.C. Watts Companies; Steve Clemons, Washington editor at Large for “The Atlantic” and and Armstrong Williams, political commentator and host of “The Right Side.”


MR. MARTIN:  Welcome back.

The President is standing firm on raising taxes on the richest Americans, and Republicans – man they’re ticked off!  But who will bend?

Let’s talk about that and more with:  Angela Rye, executive director and general counsel for the Congressional Black Caucus; Elroy Sailor, co-founder and CEO of the J.C. Watts Companies; Steve Clemons, Washington editor at Large for “The Atlantic” – I don’t know why he forgot the pocket square, but he got some funky socks on – we’ll –

MR. STEVE CLEMONS:  I got some –

MR. MARTIN:  We’ll show you later –

MR. CLEMONS:  — new socks.

MR. MARTIN:  — and Armstrong Williams, political commentator and host of “The Right Side.”  No pocket square.  And Elroy finally stepped his game up.


MR. MARTIN:  That little white pocket square last time was horrible!  So, good job!  Good job!


MR. MARTIN:  He’s dressing like he’s from Detroit!

MR. ELROY SAILOR:  Watch out!

MR. MARTIN:  All right, then!

MR. SAILOR:  Watch out!  [Chuckles.]

MR. MARTIN:  So, everybody’s talking about the fiscal cliff, obviously, and it’s abundantly clear President Obama has made it – “Look, first term, I tried to be Mr. Conciliatory.  I tried to be nice.  I tried to play along.”  Now, he’s trying to be more like John Shaft this time.


MR. MARTIN:  I mean he’s making it clear, “I’m not going to bend to the Republicans’ will.”

What do you make of it?

MR. CLEMONS:  Well, I think that he’s doing absolutely the right thing.  He’s showing that he’s not just going to run to the middle and do what so many Democrats have done before, [which] is, you know, declare defeat before the battle’s been begun.  And the Republicans were always in the way of declaring victory before the battle had begun.  So, he’s showing, you know, that he’s got some backbone and trying to do something I think is very important, [which] is that the divide between average people in this country and the rich has never been greater than it is now, and –

MR. MARTIN:  Elroy and Armstrong –

MR. CLEMONS:  — he’s trying to reverse that.

MR. MARTIN:  — are mad because, you know, their taxes are going up.


MR. ARMSTRONG WILLIAMS:  You know what?  The President should just do what he wants to do, and that is why don’t he just tell us what his real agenda is?  Why don’t he just declare a wealth tax on the wealthy and tax their assets?  That’s what it’s coming down to.  That’s exactly what he wants to do.  He wants to tax the wealthy – their assets – because he knows that if you tax income, you can never really get that income, and you can send it offshore, and you can accountants to hide it for you.  That’s what he wants to do.

In terms of raising taxes, listen.  I believe that the President is willing to compromise.  I disagree with you.  I think his conversation recently with John Boehner on the phone has shown that he’s willing to compromise on taxes, he’s willing to compromise on entitlements, and he’s willing to compromise on spending.  I think the President and Boehner –

MR. CLEMONS:  He’s willing[?] to compromise –

MR. WILLIAMS:  — listen.

MR. CLEMONS:  — on those things if the Republicans also compromise –

MR. WILLIAMS:  Listen.

MR. CLEMONS:  — on raising taxes.

MR. WILLIAMS:  Listen.  The Republicans will compromise.  That is why Boehner’s being criticized by the leadership in the House and by leading Republicans like DeMint, who just left – and Mitch McConnell, who did not warm up to the idea.

Look, Boehner has to show leadership.  It’s not about whether he loses his job.  It’s about whether he doesn’t do his job.  And his job is – they lost the election in November.  It’s over.  Obama is President, whether you like the mandate or not.  He has to support the President, and he has to embrace.  And they have to realize they’re going to lose more than the President.

MR. MARTIN:  Angela –

MR. WILLIAMS:  That’s just the way it works.

MR. MARTIN:  — it’s a little hard when you have conservatives like Bill Kristol, Ann Coulter and others who say, “Look, we lost.”


MR. MARTIN:  “Suck it.  Just accept what the President wants.”

MS. RYE:  Yeah.  I think that you’ve seen a lot here.  There’s everything from a social media campaign called “My2K” to these anecdotal stories with people that look like you and I and others.  And I think at the end of the day, you have to say, “What’s best for the whole of America?” – not what’s best for the top 2 percent.  We just can’t afford to continue these tax cuts.  The Bush tax cuts have to expire for the top 2 percent.  There’s just no rationale, rhyme or reason to continue them at this point.

So, I do think they lost, and I don’t think that … we should look at it like a zero-sum game.  This is what’s best for the country.

MR. MARTIN:  Elroy?

MR. SAILOR:  Well, a couple of things.  One, I mean Washington doesn’t have a revenue problem.  Washington has a spending problem.  I mean we’ve heard that over and –

MR. MARTIN:  Actually –

MR. SAILOR:  — over again.

MR. MARTIN:  — actually, Washington –

MS. RYE:  [Crosstalk] – a revenue problem.

MR. MARTIN:  — also has a revenue problem when you look at [it] in terms of how the economy is going, and when you look at the fact that the Congressional Budget Office has said clearly that the Bush tax cuts did contribute to our deficit.

MR. SAILOR:  Well, I still think we’ve got enough money in Washington.  We spend too much of it.  Put that in that perspective.  Secondly –

MR. MARTIN:  Right, but –

MR. SAILOR:  — this election –

MR. MARTIN:  — but we’ve spent money on a war which was unfunded.  A prescription drug bill, passed by a Republican Congress, also cost us money.

MR. SAILOR:  — so President –

MR. MARTIN:  And those Bush tax cuts – again

MR. SAILOR:  — right.

MR. MARTIN:  — contributed to the deficit.

MR. SAILOR:  So, President Obama continued many of the Bush policies that continued to cause –

MR. MARTIN:  Well, the war in –

MR. SAILOR:  — some of the challenges –

MR. MARTIN:  — Afghanistan and –

MR. SAILOR:  — that we have.

MR. MARTIN:  — Iraq was already in place –

MR. SAILOR:  Right.

MR. MARTIN:  — so, obviously he couldn’t just –

MR. SAILOR:  He continued –

MR. MARTIN:  — stop it.

MR. SAILOR:  — he continued the tax cuts.

MR. MARTIN:  Right.

MR. SAILOR:  He continued the –

MR. MARTIN:  Right.

MR. SAILOR:  — wars, and he continued the bailout.  So, a lot of the things that have contributed to some of our revenue problem and our spending problem were a continuation of President Bush.

MS. RYE:  So, you agree, then, that the Bush tax cuts are contributing to the problem.  So, you think –

MR. SAILOR:  Yeah –

MS. RYE:  — too, they should –

MR. SAILOR:  — I mean I – yeah, but I –

MS. RYE:  — good!

MR. SAILOR:  — I like to look at it holistically, though, Angela – more from tax reform versus how do you tax group A, tax B, tax C.  I think we’ve got to take a comprehensive look at our entire tax –

MR. WILLIAMS:  But if –

MR. SAILOR:  — package.

MR. WILLIAMS:  — you look at the bottom line, if … President Obama and Boehner get everything they want, it’s $560 billion.  It’s a $2.7 trillion deficit.  It’s like spitting in the ocean.  Unless –

MR. MARTIN:  No, no, no.

MR. WILLIAMS:  — they do –

MR. MARTIN:  No, no.

MR. WILLIAMS:  — [crosstalk] –

MR. MARTIN:  See, this is where we disagree, ’cause, see, I hate when people use that example – when they say, “It’s only a small piece.”  Anybody who’s at home watching right now knows a little bit here, a little bit here, a little big here all adds up.  And so my … point there is you have to have cuts.  You have to deal with entitlements.  But I also say it can’t just be a conversation of taxes and Medicare and welfare.  You also must deal with defense.  It’s – talk about “holistic”?  It has –

MR. SAILOR:  [Crosstalk] – got to –

MR. MARTIN:  — a broad deal –

MR. SAILOR:  — take a comprehensive approach.

MR. MARTIN:  — and that’s my point.  But a little bit does help when you put a little bit all together with another a little bit elsewhere.


MR. WILLIAMS:  In this conversation, you would believe that the rich – okay – would only pay taxes, but let me tell you something.  What Americans don’t realize is that 50 percent of what you spend is going towards taxes, whether it’s your utility bill, whether it’s rent –

MR. SAILOR:  Yeah.

MR. WILLIAMS:  — whether it’s mortgage, whether it’s the toll [lanes] that you’re driving through on Sundays –


MR. WILLIAMS:  — or during the week.  They’re paying taxes – and now they want to increase those taxes.  At least at some point, we as Americans need to say, “Make these politicians accountable for their spending.”  How are they spending this money?  There’s a lot of waste that can be cut out.

MR. MARTIN:  And I’ll tell you, ’cause the Republicans did a whole lot of spending during the Bush years, and they were real quiet when they were spending that money.

MR. SAILOR:  But here’s the other problem.  I think the President’s reelection efforts – I mean, look.  He’s got the bully pulpit again.  His sails are up.  The winds are at his back right now.  The last poll that I saw showed that 56 percent of the American people would blame Republicans if we went over this fiscal cliff, so the President has a lot of momentum, and I don’t think it’s an issue of whether or not we’re going to have tax increases.  In terms of how Republicans look at it, it’s an issue of how Republicans deal with that issue – how they’re going to communicate that back to their districts and back to their base in terms of what taxes they raise, why are they raising [them], where are the offsets.

MR. CLEMONS:  You know, President –

MR. SAILOR:  It’s a foregone –

MR. CLEMONS:  — Clinton achieved –

MR. SAILOR:  — conclusion.

MR. CLEMONS:  — balanced budgets, and when you saw the dramatic structural change in the percentage of GDP that went into the federal debt, Bill Clinton reversed that around.  It’s a major accomplishment.  When you look at the Republican administrations that both preceded and came after him, they were huge contributors to the national debt, particularly on a percent[age] of GDP basis.

Barack Obama’s committed to going back into Bill Clinton Land and trying to get the equation right –

MR. WILLIAMS:  But at least –

MR. CLEMONS:  — or at least – [crosstalk] –

MR. WILLIAMS:  — Republicans were a part of Bill Clinton’s success –

MR. CLEMONS:  — absolutely.

MR. WILLIAMS:  — with that.  At least –

MR. CLEMONS:  Pete –

MS. RYE:  I think that we –

MR. WILLIAMS:  — admit that.

MR. CLEMONS:  — Domenici was an unbelievable –


MR. CLEMONS:  — leader as chair of the Senate Budget Committee.  But I talked to his staff.  I talked to Pete Domenici many times during that period, and they were at war within their own caucus


MR. CLEMONS:  — as was Bill Clinton with others, because the proclivity to spend on both sides of the aisle –


MR. CLEMONS:  — is much greater.

And Roland has it absolutely right.  The untouchable taboo no one wants to talk about is defense.  We just had two wars.  Trillions –

MR. SAILOR:  Or Medicare and –

MR. CLEMONS:  — of dollars –

MR. SAILOR:  — Social Security.

MR. CLEMONS:  — well, Medicare and Social Security are talked about –

MR. MARTIN:  No, no, no.

MR. CLEMONS:  — a lot.

MR. MARTIN:  No, no.

MR. CLEMONS:  Defense –

MR. MARTIN:  Precisely.

MR. CLEMONS:  — is not talked about.

MR. MARTIN:  Precisely.  Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security?  Always ==


MR. MARTIN:  — discussed.

MR. CLEMONS:  — unpaid-for wars.  And, you know, President Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush – he ran that war in the Gulf on a profit.  He got the Japanese to contribute $13 billion to the till for that.  But you’ve just lost any sense of fiscal responsibility in the wars that we’ve had now.

MR. WILLIAMS:  Well, what if –

MR. CLEMONS:  That’s what’s really –

MR. WILLIAMS:  — we go back to the –

MR. CLEMONS:  — undermined that.

MR. WILLIAMS:  — Clinton tax level cuts?  Why don’t –

MR. MARTIN:  And –

MR. WILLIAMS:  — we go back there?  [Crosstalk] –

MR. MARTIN:  — actually –

MR. WILLIAMS:  — the fiscal cliff.  Let it expire.

MR. MARTIN:  — and, actually, we’re going to go back to a commercial break right now, so hold on.


MR. MARTIN:  So, I’m going to pay some bills right now, ’cause I know you’ve got enough money, Armstrong.

So, folks –

MS. RYE:  [Chuckles.]