As the United States draws closer and closer to the “fiscal cliff,” one has to wonder if Republican Party leaders understand what is truly at stake.  Surveys indicate that most Americans support large parts of the president’s plan, including raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans.  Republicans, on the other hand, have offered plans that alter benefits to programs such as Social Security and Medicare, and keep taxes low even on the wealthiest Americans.   The problem with this strategy is that Democrats have used this stance since 2008 to portray Republicans as out of touch with ordinary Americans.  As of Monday, a Washington Post survey indicated that 53% of Americans would blame the Republican Party if fiscal negotiations fail.

The Republican Party, while probably having the right of the economic argument, has done a miserable job explaining to the American people why their policies are better than the President’s policy.   Part of the problem is that a majority of Americans now believe that incomes in the United States are inequitably balanced and that government should take more action to redistribute wealth to the rest of wage earners.  The president’s reelection demonstrates that a majority of Americans are at least willing to consider President Obama’s approach to economic recovery.  Continued Republican intransigence on this issue threatens to leave the P{arty in a state equal to, or worse than, 1976.

Few people recall that in 1976, the Republican Party held 38 seats in the United States Senate and a little over 34% of the seats in the House of Representatives.  The party was at its nadir in part because it could not communicate effectively to the American people what it believed or why it believed it; it also suffered because it had attempted again and again to “moderate” the right wing of the Party.  The losses in 1976 were particularly galling, given that in 1972, there were 44 Senate Republicans.  It was not until Ronald Reagan articulated a clear vision and explained that vision in a compelling way that the fortunes of the Party turned around.  However, it did not hurt President Reagan that Americans had experienced four years of Democratic policies under President Jimmy Carter and had suffered under high unemployment high inflation and stagnant job growth.

Republicans today should learn from history.  The House Republicans have drawn a line in the sand, refusing to raise taxes on the wealthiest of Americans and refusing to consider another stimulus package.  They are right in arguing that this would have dire economic consequences for the country, but the majority of Americans believe they are wrong.  The Republican Party in the House of Representatives needs a different strategy.  The Party leadership should produce a bill that gives the President everything he is asking for, except the authority to raise the debt limit unilaterally (that would be unconstitutional).  Republicans should pass a budget plan that raises taxes on the wealthiest of Americans and they should authorize the other expenditures to President has requested.

One of two things would result from this action: the Democratic controlled Senate would balk at these proposals (Democrats know the economic impact these proposals would have; but they also know the political benefit they gain from proposing them), thus allowing Republicans to claim that Democrats are playing politics with the economy.  If, on the other hand, Senate Democrats pass such a proposal, then Republicans can campaign in 2014 on an “I told you so” platform, arguing that the economic chaos that has ensued as a direct consequence of the economic policies put in place this year.

Of course, the problem with this strategy is that Republican rank and file members, people who voted for Republican representatives on the promise that they will hold the line, would feel betrayed by their representatives.  However, I believe that most Republicans would recognize that Americans need to see the consequences of their current policy choices before they can acknowledge the wisdom of Republican positions.  Sometimes you have to let the baby touch the stove.

Republican intransigence on this issue simply gives Democrats fodder to argue that Republicans don’t understand the needs of ordinary people.  If the Republican Party continues on this path, they are destined to be a minority party in both houses of Congress for the perceivable future.  This is not the time to win a battle by losing the war.

Michael P. Bobic, PhD, has taught American party politics since 1996.