Washington has many lazy habits, and one of the worst is a reflexive tendency to see equivalence where none exists. Hence the nonsense, being peddled by politicians and commentators who should know better, that “both sides” are equally at fault in the deadlocked talks over the debt ceiling.
This is patently false. The truth is that Democrats have made clear they are open to a compromise deal on budget cuts and revenue increases. Republicans have made clear they are not.
Put another way, Democrats reacted to the “grand bargain” proposed by President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner by squawking, complaining and highlighting elements they didn’t like. This is known throughout the world as the way to begin a process of negotiation.
Republicans, by contrast, answered with a definitive “no” and then covered their ears. Given the looming Aug. 2 deadline for default if the debt ceiling is not raised, the proper term for this approach is blackmail.
Yet the “both sides are to blame” narrative somehow gained currency after Boehner announced Saturday that House Republicans would not support any increase in revenue, period. A false equivalence was drawn between the absolute Republican rejection of “revenue-positive” tax reform and the less-than-absolute Democratic opposition to “benefit cuts” in Medicare and Social Security.
The bogus story line is that the radical right-wing base of the GOP and the radical left-wing base of the Democratic Party are equally to blame for sinking the deal.
Leave aside, for the moment, the fact that in the Obama-Boehner proposal, there would be roughly three dollars’ worth of budget cuts for every dollar of new revenue. Don’t pause to ask whether it makes sense to slash government spending when the economy is still sputtering out of the worst recession in decades. Instead, focus narrowly on the politics of the deal.
It is true that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi howled like a blindsided politician when she learned that entitlement programs were on the table. But her objections—and those of Democrats in general—are philosophical and tactical, not absolute.
Progressives understand that Medicare and Social Security are not sustainable on their current trajectories; in the long term, both must have their revenues and costs brought into balance. Pelosi’s position is that each program should be addressed with an eye toward sustainability—not as a part of a last-minute deal for a hike in the debt ceiling that covers us for two or three years.
It’s also true that Democrats believe they can win back a passel of House seats next year by highlighting the GOP plan to convert Medicare into a voucher program. They don’t want Republicans to be able to point and say, “See, the Democrats want to cut Medicare, too.”
There’s nothing in these Democratic objections, however, that couldn’t be creatively finessed. You can claim you haven’t actually “cut” a benefit, for example, if what you’ve done is restrain the rate at which its cost will grow. You can offset spending with new revenue, and you can do so in a way that gives low-income taxpayers a break. Democrats left the door open and these options could have been explored.
The story on the Republican side is entirely different. There are ways to finesse a “no new taxes” pledge, too. Instead of raising tax rates, you close loopholes in the name of reform; you add an enhancement here, a “user fee” there, and you can manage to get the revenue you need and still claim you haven’t voted to raise taxes.
But Republicans are taking the position that not a cent of new revenue can be raised, no matter the euphemism. Some Democrats, yes, are being scratchy and cantankerous. But Republicans are refusing to negotiate at all. That’s not the same thing.
I understand why President Obama, in his news conference Monday, chided “each side” for taking a “maximalist position.” For both political and practical reasons, it’s advantageous for him to be seen as an honest broker.
Meanwhile, though, the clock ticks toward Aug. 2 and the possibility of a catastrophic default becomes more real. And no one should be confused about what the president confronts: On one side, grousing and grumbling. On the other, a brick wall.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group