GOP blame game self-destructs

Party's attempt to pin looming, across-the-board cuts on Obama makes striking a deal virtually impossible

Published February 23, 2013 2:00PM (EST)

                                       (Jeff Malet, Dharapak)
(Jeff Malet, Dharapak)

The big GOP talking point about sequestration, the looming across-the-board budget cuts, was a simple one: It was all Barack Obama’s idea in the first place, and therefore his fault. There’s been a lot of discussion of how honest this idea was (not particularly), and how effective it’s likely to be if sequestration actually happens (not especially), and even why they likely settled on it (because if there’s one thing that everyone in the Republican Party can agree on it would be bashing Barack Obama). But what I don’t think anyone has pointed out is what’s really wrong with this talking point: It actively undermines any current negotiations. Again.

That’s because Republicans are doing everything possible to remind Barack Obama, and other Democrats, that Republicans are at least as interested in using negotiations as an opportunity to generate material for future ad campaigns as they are in striking deals.

Go back, for a minute, to the negotiations that produced the Budget Control Act and produced the sequester that is now scheduled to go into effect in a few days. Recall that Republicans were demanding huge spending cuts, and refusing to raise the debt limit unless they got them. The White House was willing to agree on the size of deficit cuts, and both sides were willing to agree to put off the debate for a while on how exactly to do deficit reduction. The problem was that Republicans wanted some assurances that when negotiations started up again the default would be cuts, not status quo; the White House suggested automatic cuts by a certain date unless the deficit cuts were deep enough.

Claiming now that this constitutes “Obama’s sequester” isn’t just a stretch. The debate over whether Obama was “really” the author of it isn’t very interesting.

What does matter, however, is that using that supposed authorship against him suggests that Republicans feel that any proposal Obama makes in any negotiations is fair game for attack ads. Even if they agreed to it. Even if it was a counter-proposal that was milder than a Republican proposal.

It’s particularly corrosive in budget deficit reduction negotiations because the inherent nature of deficit reduction is that the goal involves (unpopular) spending cuts and (unpopular) tax increases. At best, public opinion might support tax increases on the rich and spending cuts on a handful of tiny budget items, but that’s about it. Everything else is going to be unpopular. So for negotiations to run smoothly at all, both sides need to have some confidence that they can, well, negotiate. Obviously, the initial public demands from both sides are entirely legitimate targets at the time and into the future. But counteroffers? Make those fair game, and you just won’t get them.

Taken to an extreme, one could imagine Republicans demanding, say, $1 trillion in Social Security cuts; Obama responding that he will consider $100 billion; and Republicans then running attack ads at the president for “proposing” vicious cuts to Social Security.

Think that’s unlikely? Consider the history of the Medicare cuts in the Affordable Care Act. At various times over the last three years, Republicans have made those attacks the centerpiece of their 2010 campaign; included the very same cuts in Paul Ryan’s House Republican budget; bashed Barack Obama and the Democrats for refusing to ever cut Medicare; and resumed attacking the cuts during the 2012 campaign. So it’s not as if Ryan-era Republicans have any hesitation at attacking Obama for positions they hold themselves.

Reaching deals is always hard. Reaching negative-sum deals – lose-lose deals, where the theoretical payoff is far into the future – is even harder. Republicans surely know that; they’ve repeatedly asked Obama not only to agree to Social Security and Medicare cuts, but to propose them; they’ve also been far more eager to advocate vague cuts than specific ones, and have been quite outraged whenever anyone extrapolates from those vague cuts to suggest Republicans might want to actually reduce any specific popular program.

So anyone who actually cares about deficit reduction needs to know how fragile the negotiations about specifics will always be, and needs to structure negotiations in such a way that all participants are protected from attacks based on interim positions, counteroffers, and suggestions to get through impasses.

Of course, that’s only for those who really are interested in actually cutting the deficit. The fact that they’re now attacking Barack Obama for “proposing” sequestration is just the latest evidence that most House and Senate Republicans have no such interest at all.

By Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein writes at a Plain Blog About Politics. Follow him at @jbplainblog

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Barack Obama Bipartisanship John Boehner Medicare Sequestration Social Security