The GOP Budget Divide: Don’t Know vs. Don’t Care

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In this crazy world of ours, who can say whether a published budget offer is "real"? Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

The Republican Party’s public stance on the budget wars is that President Obama is to blame for refusing to support cuts to retirement programs. Now, it’s sort of a tricky stance to maintain because Obama has publicly declared his willingness to cut spending on retirement programs and even outlined his position. The interesting split within the Republican Party is between those Republicans who understand this fact but choose not to acknowledge it, those who don’t understand it, and those who don’t really care.

In the first category is John Boehner. If anybody is intimately familiar with Obama’s negotiating position on the long-term budget, it is the House Speaker who has spent hours and hours locked in negotiations with Obama. Boehner appeared on Meet the Press yesterday, where David Gregory admirably and quite unusually confronted Boehner with the existence of the White House proposal Boehner won’t acknowledge. Boehner declared, “there's no plan from Senate Democrats or the White House to replace the sequester.” Gregory reminded him that Obama does in fact have such a proposal. Boehner replied:

Well, David that's just nonsense. If he had a plan, why wouldn't Senate Democrats go ahead and pass it?

That is an incredibly strange response. Senate Democrats do have a plan, but it won’t pass because Senate Republicans are filibustering it. Even if they didn’t have a plan, and even if there were no filibuster, how would this negate the existence of Obama’s plan? Maybe Senate Democrats don’t want to pass his plan because it contains unpopular cuts to retirement programs, and they’re waiting for Republican to buy in first!

Boehner then segued into an unrelated talking point about how great tax reform would be. Gregory steered him back to the question — why not trade tax deductions for cuts to retirement programs? Boehner replied, “Listen. I have worked with the president for two years to try to come to an agreement. Unfortunately, we've not been able to do so.” Right! Obama has a deficit plan, but Boehner couldn’t come to an agreement on it because Eric Cantor told him the House Republicans wouldn’t approve it. Cantor has said this himself. That’s not a supporting point for Boehner’s contention that Obama has no deficit proposal that includes spending cuts. It’s, if anything, a refutation.

Boehner then repeated his claim that Obama refuses to “get serious about spending, and Gregory again noted that Obama has a proposal to cut spending. Boehner just repeated his position once again:

David, the president got $650 billion of higher taxes on the American people on January the first. How much more does he want, one. When is the president going to address the spending side of this?

Boehner’s gambit here is perfectly obvious. He wants to cut a deal with Obama, but understands that doing so would result in him getting fired from his job. But since “my members are so crazy they won’t even let me negotiate” is not a strong message to bring to a high-profile showdown, Boehner can’t say that. Instead he’s going with the time-honored method of just saying a bunch of words about politics until the interviewer gets tired of it and moves on.

What’s more noteworthy is the large camp of Republicans who seem inclined to believe Boehner’s version. Susan Collins is surely the sort of Republican who would like to support something along the lines of Obama’s proposal. Instead she is saying things like this:

“The president has to go first with plans for Medicare and Social Security,” she said. “Then I think you will see more receptivity on the Republican side to an overhaul of the tax code” that raises more revenue.

Senator Collins! Even if your computer blocks access to the White House website, do you not remember when Obama talked about his plan to reduce spending on those programs at the State of the Union address? You were there!

Meanwhile, Byron York quotes GOP aides in Congress puzzling out Obama’s strategy:

 “It’s still not clear he’s willing to actually cut spending,” said another House aide.  “And that’s what is necessary.”

“I’m not so sure he has given up on raising taxes entirely,” says yet another aide.  “He will try to raise net tax revenue through tax reform.”

It’s not clear? You’re not sure? Obama is saying this every day. How much more clear does he have to be? This is starting to sound like an old Phil Hartman–Jon Lovitz routine:

Possibly the most revealing iteration of the thought process of most Republicans came from GOP strategist Mike Murphy this weekend. It occurred in real time, on Twitter, leaving Murphy’s mental processes unusually exposed. Ezra Klein covered the timeline, but to recapitulate the basics, Murphy began by opining that Republicans might cut a deal with Obama if only Obama would endorse means-testing Medicare. Reporter John Harwood tweeted to him that Obama has supported this. Murphy replied that it’s a “good start but not enough” — Obama should also support “chained CPI,” or using a stingier formula to calculate cost of living increases for Social Security. Many people pointed this out to him. Murphy then called chained CPI a “small-beans gimmick.”

Murphy probably represents the vast bulk of the Republican Party right now. They don’t follow the ins and outs of the policy debate. They don’t like taxes or spending. Many of them — enough to pass a bargain through the House, with Democratic support — could be persuaded to support a compromise in theory. But their sense of what a fair bargain might look like is determined almost entirely by partisan signals. If Obama is willing to do something, they figure, that thing can’t be good enough.