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Should GOP be grumbling over "fiscal cliff" deal?

News Analysis

Depressed, demoralized, humiliated and stewing in a bitter brew of recriminations, resentments and resignation.

That is the state of mind of congressional Republicans as they stagger their way out of the 112th Congress. Considering this gloom, it's scarcely possible to remember the session began with a newly minted House majority and a splashy vote to nullify President Obama's signature legislative accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act.

It ended with a freshly re-elected Obama bearing relentlessly down on defeated Republicans and seeing them vote for higher income taxes for the first time since the presidency of George Herbert Walker Bush. Mr. Obama broke the back of nearly 20 years of GOP tax orthodoxy and in the course just over 18 months pulled Republicans from a posture of not one dollar of new taxes to $620 billion over 10 years.

And that $620 billion in higher taxes came with not one iota of structural entitlement reform. Republicans even agreed to waive the first two months of the across-the-board spending cuts that supposedly heralded a new day of fiscal austerity wrought by the 2010 midterm elections.

"At the end of the day we got whooped," Rep. Steve LaTourette, R-Ohio, said on "CBS This Morning."

"We all knew the president was going to get his way. He campaigned on raising taxes, he wanted to raise taxes, he wins."

House GOP leaders couldn't even bring themselves to discuss the "fiscal cliff" bill - or find a unified position (House Speaker John Boehner voted for the bill, Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy voted against it). Only House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., hailed the package, calling it a "legacy vote" and saying it laid a foundation for tax reform "because we are making permanent tax policies Republicans originally crafted."

It was muted praise, but there's a larger point that Republicans seem to have overlooked. It's not unusual in the midst of what feels like chaotic defeat and misery to miss a larger and long arc of history.

What Republicans, most at least, fail to see is they have won virtually all of the tax cut debate started by Ronald Reagan and extended by George Bush the younger.

Yes, Mr. Obama raised income tax rates and raised $620 billion in new revenue. But he also - with conspicuous support from fiery House and Senate liberals - made permanent nearly 99 percent of the Bush-era tax policy. The 10-year cost of these tax cuts is nearly $3.9 trillion. Bush only negotiated his tax cuts for 10 years. Mr. Obama has made them good for the life of the nation.

Whether this is good for the nation or its economy remains an open question. That a durable and bipartisan consensus now embraces the economic theory that low marginal income tax rates for all income earners below $400,000 is best for the nation cannot be challenged.

The president campaigned for higher taxes on incomes of $250,000 and above. That was a concession to Bush and Reagan economic theory on marginal rates. Republicans drove him to $400,000 but were aided considerably by the quiet but persistent urging of Senate Democrats, the same ones who narrowed the scope of higher estate taxes.

For awhile this looked and sounded like a debate about the merits of Bush and Reagan economics and a reversion back to the tax and economic policies of Bill Clinton. While Mr. Clinton gave a memorable speech for Mr. Obama and explained the supposed choices in the November campaign, the post-"fiscal cliff" reality is the Clinton tax code is mostly gone for good and virtually all of the Bush code is set in legislative stone.

But you'd never know it by the sound, the look, the temperament or tenor of congressional Republicans. Perhaps they will find their voice in the coming battle over raising the debt ceiling, tax reform and entitlement cuts.

For now, the sound of humiliated silence is all there is to signify a victory Reagan probably couldn't have imagined and probably surprises Bush the younger.

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