There are two ways for Democrats to assess which of the deals coming out of the debt-ceiling negotiations is best. There are a few deals out there that, according to the polls, will be most popular -- ones that would reduce the deficit by up to $4 trillion with a mix spending cuts and revenue increases. And then there's the deal that will have the lowest cost in human suffering -- a clean vote to raise the debt ceiling without a deficit-reduction package. Those are not, sadly, the same deal. But they also aren't that far off.
When Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell essentially folded on Tuesday by offering a way to raise the debt-ceiling without any spending cuts or revenue increases attached to it, Democrats missed an opportunity. Remember, this is what happened every time we raise the debt ceiling until now. But McConnell's plan is politically worse for Democrats because it doesn't include deficit-reduction measures that all the polls show people want. McConnell's plan wouldn't raise the Medicare-eligibility age; there wouldn't by any painful Social Security or spending cuts. In short, the deal would be substantively better but politically weaker, because raising the debt ceiling alone is unpopular.
The flip side to all this is that what is popular in the short-term -- deficit reduction -- may become a liability by next November. Down the road, these cuts will hurt the economic recovery. Given that, as everyone who reads this blog knows,Obama's biggest threat in 2012 is the poor economy, it's hard to say that a popular deal now couldn't hurt Obama's reelection chances next year.
Nevertheless, Obama and the Democrats have decided that a deficit-reduction deal is more important than a good deal -- politics over policy. Sometimes, that's the right trade-off. In this case, it's less clear. So while David Brooks banged his head against the wall, wishing Republicans had accepted Democrats' $4 trillion deal two weeks ago, liberals should be wishing the administration had jumped on McConnell's offer. Instead, they let Harry Reid mess it up.
Before the White House let McConnell's plan slip through their fingers, they could blame a substantively disastrous deal on the fact that they had to bargain with fanatical Republicans. They can no longer say that.