Jonathan Chait

Getting To No

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Michael Tomasky underscores an underrated impediment to any debt ceiling or deficit deal -- large segments of the Republican Party will automatically oppose anything that President Obama supports:

The fight is partly about legitimate ideological differences, and it’s partly about the Republicans seeing a rare opportunity to use the occasion to win some big cuts to the domestic budget and maybe entitlements if they’re lucky. But let’s be real. It’s also about not giving Obama a victory. In fact, on a deep emotional and psychological level, it’s chiefly about that. Now that’s not what Republicans go on cable television and say. But it’s quite obviously been the whole strategy since the stimulus bill: Obama gets nothing from us. And every so often, someone slips, and the truth is revealed. The other day, after the Gang of Six released its new plan, a Senate leadership aide tweeted the following to Politico’s morning Playbook, which gets read by every Washington insider: “Background guidance: The President killed any chance of its success by 1) Embracing it. 2) Hailing the fact that it increases taxes. 3) Saying it mirrors his own plan.”

There are a couple elements to this. One is a simple policy heuristic: If Obama is a mortal socialist threat to capitalism, then anything he supports must advance the cause of threatening capitalism, and therefore must be bad. Persuading Republicans to vote for an Obama-supported plan therefore requires them to follow their (generally hazy) beliefs about the policy merits of the deal in question over their strongly-defined beliefs about Obama.

Second, any deficit-reducing deal with Obama means conceding that Obama actually wants to reduce the deficit. Charles Krauthammer has been assailing Obama as a spendthrift. When reports began to surface that Obama was offering up significant spending cuts, necessarily in private negotiations, Krauthammer was apoplectic. Here he is two weeks ago insisting that it's all a political ploy:

Obama has run disastrous annual deficits of around $1.5 trillion while insisting for months on a “clean” debt-ceiling increase, i.e., with no budget cuts at all. Yet suddenly he now rises to champion major long-term debt reduction, scorning any suggestions of a short-term debt-limit deal as can-kicking.

The flip-flop is transparently political. A short-term deal means another debt-ceiling fight before Election Day, a debate that would put Obama on the defensive and distract from the Mediscare campaign to which the Democrats are clinging to save them in 2012.

And here he is, a week later, insisting that such cuts could not exist because they are being proffered in private negotiations:

All of a sudden he’s a born-again budget balancer prepared to bravely take on his own party by making deep cuts in entitlements. Really? Name one. He’s been saying forever that he’s prepared to discuss, engage, converse about entitlement cuts. But never once has he publicly proposed a single structural change to any entitlement.

Hasn’t the White House leaked that he’s prepared to raise the Medicare age or change the cost-of-living calculation?

Anonymous talk is cheap. Leaks are designed to manipulate. Offers are floated and disappear.

We could find out if the cuts are real if Obama and the Republicans arrive at and announce their agreement. But Krauthammer today urges Republicans not to allow any such thing to happen by insisting they only extend the debt ceiling into next year and adopt small cuts instead of large ones:

In my view, the Half-Trillion is best: It is clean, straightforward, yields real cuts, averts the current crisis and provides until year-end to negotiate a bigger deal. At the same time, it punctures President Obama’s thus far politically successful strategy of proposing nothing in public, nothing in writing, nothing with numbers, while leaking through a pliant press supposed offers of surpassing scope and reasonableness.

So Krauthammer's view is that the cuts Obama is reported to be offering are all fake, and therefore Republicans should refuse to make a deficit deal with him, therefore allowing them to continue denying that Obama offered any real cuts. The emotional impetus at work here is pretty transparent.

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