Remember the old joke that ended with the punch line, “What’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is negotiable?” That seems to be the Republican position in the debt-ceiling debate now that House Speaker John Boehner has been forced to renounce any tax increases and, for that matter, any net revenue increases. It also seems exceedingly doubtful that Republicans will go along with meaningful cuts in defense spending. Because of this intransigence, Democrats will, in turn, pull virtually any changes to entitlements off the table, and cuts to domestic discretionary spending will be harder to sell to their rank and file.
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The result will be a deal that not only falls short of the $4 trillion target but probably also comes up shy of the smaller $2.4 trillion goal that the bipartisan working group led by Vice President Joe Biden was heading toward. The can is kicked down the road one more time.
Republicans don’t seem to understand the symbiotic relationships in this negotiation. Democrats hate entitlement cuts just as much as Republicans despise tax hikes. Likewise, just as Republicans dislike defense cuts, Democrats dislike domestic spending cuts. Yet, both are necessary. If Republicans expect Democrats to go along with entitlement cuts, the GOP has to be willing to go along with some revenue increases. If Republicans expect Democrats to swallow deep hits to domestic spending, the GOP has to swallow deep hits to defense. Instead, the Republicans’ position seems to be that they should be allowed to stand on their principles while Democrats are required to compromise theirs.
A deal to raise the debt limit will surely pass, and the United States will probably avoid default. But the business community and the financial markets will see no sign that Washington is committed to fiscal sanity. The eventual deal will give them little reason for confidence in the country’s political leadership and economic future, and they will likely keep sitting on the cash in their corporate coffers.
The current equation seems to be: Big Hopes and Big Talk = Small Cuts and No Progress.
Republicans want to stand on their principles, while Democrats are required to compromise on theirs.
Republicans will be able to smugly walk away from the table knowing that they didn’t give an inch, but President Obama may well come out the winner. The public will see the president as having tried to negotiate a balanced approach whereby each side allowed its own ox to be gored and made sacrifices for the broader national good.
Washington will not succeed in bending the deficit and debt curve, and Obama will be able to blame Republicans for their unwillingness to meet Democrats halfway.
What has happened is that the New Republican Party has come to hate taxes a lot more than it hates deficits and the country’s growing indebtedness. It has rewritten history to omit any acknowledgment that President Reagan, when it was necessary, went along with tax increases. The memory of Reagan accepting tax increases, however reluctantly, has been supplanted by President George H.W. Bush’s fateful decision to go along with tax increases in the 1990 budget negotiations.
What the New Republican Party remembers is Bush losing reelection, not the fact that those tax increases were pivotal in eliminating the federal budget deficit under President Clinton and in the resulting period of strong economic growth. Bush’s loss is remembered, and the period of fiscal responsibility is forgotten. At least history will treat Bush 41 with more gratitude than his own party does.
Everywhere you look in Washington these days, you see gray heads shaking. Veteran Democrats and Republicans alike have grown increasingly depressed as they watch this horrible play unfold. They remember a better day when politicians behaved more responsibly. Although the old days were never as good as a lot of old-timers like to think, people seemed to do the right thing a bit more often than they do now.
To be sure, Obama would have had a very hard time selling real entitlement cuts and deep domestic spending cuts to the House and Senate Democratic caucuses that have grown more liberal by attrition and election losses over the past decade. Maybe he wouldn’t have succeeded. But we will never know, and the blame for Washington not stepping up to the plate will fall not on the Democrats but on the Republicans who flinched first. Had things played out, maybe both sides would have come up short, with neither being able to deliver. But under that scenario, both sides would have shared the fallout. Now, the risk has shifted to the GOP.
It’s easy to get discouraged in Washington these days. Perhaps it’s the knowledge that the last edition of Profiles in Courage has already gone to the printer, with no new names being added to its pages because fewer elected officials are doing things that warrant inclusion. It will remain a thin tome.
This article appears in the July 16, 2011, edition of National Journal.