Brooks, Douthat on the debt reduction talks

As I write this, the so-called Gang of Six in the U.S. Senate appears to be getting good response to a long-term debt reduction plan. From the Washington Post:

“We’ve gone from a Gang of Six to a mob of 50,” exulted Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.), as he emerged from the meeting. The proposal, Manchin said, “shows great promise.”

In general terms, the plan sounds a lot like the one that Obama has had on the table for weeks — something in the area of a $4 trillion reduction in debt with about 3/4s coming from spending cuts, including some sure-to-be controversial changes to entitlement programs, and about 1/4 coming from changes to the tax code (eliminating some deductions, closing some loopholes, maybe raising rates for high earners).

As I noted before on this blog, this is a big big deal. And it’s amazing that so many politicians both left and right of center are willing to take the plunge with such a serious, comprehensive package. Obama has essentially put on the table a deficit reduction deal that is to the right of the average Republican voter.

But today’s optimism might not win the day.

Right-of-center NYT columnists David Brooks and Ross Douthat in the last couple of days have given a much grimmer outlook because of the power and intransigence of the Tea Party.

Here’s Douthat from “The Republican Retreat”:

[. . .] last week, the Republican offensive suddenly collapsed in disarray. In the space of a few days, a party that once looked capable of pressing the White House into a deal that would have left liberals fuming found itself falling back on two less-palatable options instead: either a procedural gimmick that would try to pin the responsibility for raising the ceiling on President Obama, or a stand on principle that would risk plunging the American economy back into recession.

What went wrong? It turns out that Republicans didn’t have a plan for transitioning from the early phase of a high-stakes political negotiation, when the goal is to draw stark lines and force the other side to move your way, to the late phase, in which the public relations battle becomes crucial and the goal is to make the other side seem unreasonable, intransigent and even a little bit insane.

[. . .]Their inability to make even symbolic concessions has turned a winning hand into a losing one. A majority of Americans want to close the deficit primarily with spending cuts — which is to say, they’re primed to side with conservatives in the debt-ceiling debate. But in trying to turn that “primarily” into a “completely,” the right has squandered this advantage. By 48 percent to 34 percent, a Quinnipiac poll found last week, Americans will blame Republicans if debt-ceiling gridlock precipitates an economic crisis.

And here’s David Brooks writing about one particular deal in yesterday’s column “The Road Not Taken”:

The combined effect would have been to reduce the size of government by $3 trillion over a decade. That’s a number roughly three times larger than the cost of the Obama health care law. It also would have brutally fractured the Democratic Party.

But the Republican Party decided not to pursue this deal, or even seriously consider it. Instead what happened was this: Conservatives told themselves how steadfast they were being for a few weeks. Then morale crumbled.

This week, Republicans will probably pass a balanced budget Constitutional amendment that has zero chance of becoming law. Then they may end up clinging to a no más Senate compromise. This proposal would pocket cuts that have already been agreed on, and it would eliminate leverage for future cuts and make them less likely.

It could be that this has been a glorious moment in Republican history. It could be that having persuaded independents that they are a prudent party, Republicans will sweep the next election. Controlling the White House and Congress, perhaps they will have the guts to cut Medicare unilaterally, reform the welfare state and herald in an era of conservative greatness.

But it’s much more likely that Republicans will come to regret this missed opportunity. So let us pause to identify the people who decided not to seize the chance to usher in the largest cut in the size of government in American history.

If this deal emerging in the Senate continues to gain momentum, it will run up against the intransigence of “no taxes no matter what” Republicans in the House. So far, that group has refused to budge.

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