the national interest

Who Killed the Debt Deal?

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 21: U.S. Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) (C) makes a statement to members of the press on the failure of the
Blame John Kerry! Photo: Alex Wong/2011 Getty Images

One measure of the success of President Obama’s “we can’t wait” fall offensive, aside from slightly improved approval ratings, is that Republicans feel forced to appear more conciliatory. This isn’t the same thing as actually being more conciliatory, but it’s something. For most of Obama’s term, Republicans have been openly disdaining compromising and admitting that their top legislative objective is to deny him reelection. Now they’re insisting that the whole idea they won’t compromise is a Democratic smear.

The president’s fundamental campaign message was to run against Congress — never mind the fact that half of Congress is controlled by the Democrats, but that’s his purpose, and certainly an agreement in this committee would have stepped on that narrative for the president,” complains Senator Pat Toomey. Charles Krauthammer calls the idea that Republicans are in hoc to anti-tax absolutism a “myth.” Meanwhile, the Republican members of the supercommittee have a collective op-ed denying “that the talks failed because of Republicans’ attachment to the Bush tax cuts.”

Krauthammer makes his case by listing a series of Republicans who have agreed to higher tax revenue:

• Senator Tom Coburn last year signed on to the Simpson-Bowles tax reform that would have increased tax revenue by $1 trillion over a decade.

• During the debt-ceiling talks, House Speaker John Boehner agreed to an $800 billion revenue increase as part of a Grand Bargain.

But of course Coburn and Boehner were shot down by Republicans in Congress. Citing those examples as evidence of Republican flexibility is like citing Admiral Yamamoto’s reservations about the Pearl Harbor attack to prove that the Japanese didn’t want to go to war with the United States.

Krauthammer’s citing of the Boehner offer is especially rich. It’s true that Boehner and Obama privately agreed on a deficit-cutting deal that included $800 billion in higher revenue. When reports of that Obama-Boehner deal surfaced this summer, Krauthammer dismissed it, repeatedly. (“Anonymous talk is cheap. Leaks are designed to manipulate. Offers are floated and disappear.”) The existence of this offer complicated Krauthammer’s attempts to argue that Obama would never really agree to cut spending. Now that it’s needed to bolster his argument that Republicans will agree to higher revenue, the Obama-Boehner deal is real again.

The GOP supercommittee op-ed is framed as a defense of the party’s flexibility. But if you read it closely, they’re not really saying they were willing to deal. In fact, they say they wouldn’t make a deal because Democrats demanded higher revenue:

At no time in the negotiations did the Democratic committee members drop their insistence that, one way or the other, any deal had to include a trillion dollars in new taxes. Republicans believe that would kill job creation and economic recovery.

Follow that? The Republicans are conceding here that the deal fell apart because Democrats insisted that higher revenue had to be part of it. Somebody tell Krauthammer that the GOP will not go along with a deficit deal balanced between higher revenue and lower entitlement spending.

Krauthammer also lists the GOP supercommittee offer as evidence of their flexibility. In fact, that offer involved a tiny increase in revenue, which would be obtained by cutting taxes for the rich and increasing them on the non-rich. Since the whole point of the Democratic negotiating position is that the pain of austerity has to be shared by the rich as well as the non-rich, a proposal to cut taxes for the rich isn’t really a concession.

Who Killed the Debt Deal?