The Budget Fight: Over Before It Began

The stars are now in alignment for Democrats to capitulate to a draconian ten-year budget deal as the Republicans’ price for agreeing to raise the debt ceiling. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad’s fiscally conservative budget for 2012, set to be released today, will add pressure for a cave-in.

Conrad is one of the most hawkish of the Democratic austerity mongers. President Barack Obama created the Bowles-Simpson Commission partly to appease him. He appointed Conrad to the panel, whose majority proposed a ten-year deal not unlike the one that Republicans are pushing, with deep cuts in Social Security and Medicare as well as a mandatory cap on spending. (The main difference is that the report recommended raising taxes.) The Conrad 2012 budget is well to the right of where most Congressional Democrats stand on these issues.

But the biggest source of pressure for accepting a deal on Republican terms is the now familiar picture of President Obama responding to GOP stonewalling by moving in the Republicans’ direction without getting any concessions in return.

Get dunked. Rinse. Repeat.

On Sunday, Obama had a private meeting with House Speaker John Boehner, offering to include cuts in Medicare as part of the deal. On Tuesday he appeared for a few minutes in the White House briefing room in his familiar, above-party incarnation. He called for a debt-limit summit Thursday, where he will increase the pressure on both parties to make a deal.

“This will require both parties to get out of their comfort zones,” he said, “and both parties to agree on real compromise.”

Jesus wept! The Republicans are playing the guy like a violin, and he is talking about comfort zones. Is a cave-in on Medicare, and perhaps Social Security as well, a heroic move out of the Democrats’ comfort zone -- or a reward for Republican stonewalling?

The Republican comfort zone is, of course, no tax increases. And they don’t seem inclined to move. Why should they? Given Obama’s governing style, partisan hardball works well for the GOP, and all the signs are that the eventual deal will be mostly spending cuts with only token revenue increases based on loophole closings. Obama, at his most recent press conference last week briefly chided the Republicans for not being willing to entertain tax hikes on the very rich. But he quickly back off that public shaming strategy and was back to a game of sweet reasonableness.

Obama’s above-party, appeaser-in-chief stance will likely lead to a deal that starves out all of his other domestic initiatives (including health reform), needlessly cuts valued social insurance programs that have been Democratic signatures, lets the very wealthy off the hook, and starves government for resources needed to combat joblessness that shows every sign of plateauing near 10 percent.

In Tuesday’s New York Times, moderate conservative columnist David Brooks couldn’t take it any more. He was beside himself with worry that the Republicans, in their intransigence, would reject a budget deal that accomplishes ideological objectives beyond their wildest dreams.
The Republicans, he wrote:

… have been tough and inflexible and forced the Democrats to come to them. The Democrats have agreed to tie budget cuts to the debt ceiling bill. They have agreed not to raise tax rates. They have agreed to a roughly 3-to-1 rate of spending cuts to revenue increases, an astonishing concession.

Moreover, many important Democrats are open to a truly large budget deal. President Obama has a strong incentive to reach a deal so he can campaign in 2012 as a moderate. The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, has talked about supporting a debt reduction measure of $3 trillion or even $4 trillion if the Republicans meet him part way. There are Democrats in the White House and elsewhere who would be willing to accept Medicare cuts if the Republicans would be willing to increase revenues. 

If the Republican Party were a normal party, it would take advantage of this amazing moment. It is being offered the deal of the century: trillions of dollars in spending cuts in exchange for a few hundred billion dollars of revenue increases.

Brooks needn’t worry. Eventually, Obama, Conrad and company are likely to keep giving in until they offer the Republicans a deal they can’t refuse. Then, having given away the store, Obama will step into the Oval Office flanked by leaders of both parties and proclaim victory. He will then begin his 2012 campaign as the man who brought about a ten-year path to budget discipline at the cost of sacking social insurance programs that Democrats have defended for eight decades -- and as a president who tied his own hands when it came to the need to get the country out of a period of endless joblessness.

If the Democrats think this is the royal road to re-election, they are kidding themselves. Republicans win three ways. They use the recessions and Obama’s self-conception as the Great Conciliator to achieve long-standing ideological goals of cutting affirmative government; they humiliate the Democrats and demonstrate which party has the nerve to fight for its convictions; and they assure that Obama will head into 2012 with high unemployment and no tools to address it.

It’s almost too late to prevent this train wreck. But maybe if Democratic Congressional leaders like Reid and Pelosi, and most of the Democratic Caucus, display the same toughness as the Republicans, they can prevent a total capitulation. Alas, Democrats in name only, like Conrad, make this an even heavier lift.

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