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May 26, 2011 2:55 PM The nature of a debt-ceiling compromise

By Steve Benen

I always like Ezra’s analogies. Today’s item on the debt ceiling is a good one, because it touches on part of the debt-ceiling fight that often goes overlooked.

You and I have decided to have lunch together today. We both need lunch. We both know we’re going to have lunch. But we don’t agree on where to eat. So you propose Mexican, but I counter with Chinese, and warn that if you refuse, neither of us will get to eat lunch ever again. Deal?

Of course not. But that’s pretty much the GOP’s strategy on the debt-ceiling negotiation. The Republican position on the debt ceiling is “no” to a clean increase and “no” to a bargain that includes both tax increases and spending cuts. The Democratic position is “yes” to a clean increase, but as of yet, it’s not “no” to a bargain that includes spending cuts but resists revenues. That seems to me like something that needs to change.

In general, both parties have the same position on the debt ceiling: It needs to be raised. That’s lunch. The two parties have different positions on deficit reduction: Democrats believe it should include tax increases and Republicans don’t. That’s where lunch should happen. But Republicans are trying to make their position in this negotiation “spending cuts” and the Democratic position “debt ceiling.” Democrats shouldn’t let them. That’s not the right trade.

This is important because the parties, at this point, not only can’t reach a compromise, but don’t even agree on what a compromise is.

To borrow Ezra’s analogy, Democrats are effectively saying, “Let’s compromise — we’ll join you for Mexican food at lunch, and in exchange, we’ll get Chinese food for dinner.”

Republicans are responding, “Let’s compromise — we’ll get the Mexican food we want, and in exchange, you won’t starve.”

That may seem like an exaggeration, but it’s really not. On the debt ceiling, Dems long ago gave up hope of seeing a clean bill, and want to strike a deal on longer-debt debt reduction. Democrats are willing to accept a trade-off — they’ll accept spending cuts in exchange for some tax increases. That seems like a fair compromise to them.

Republicans have a very different idea about the nature of the process. They see an alternative trade-off — the GOP will accept spending cuts, and in exchange, they won’t deliberately destroy the economy.

Dems are willing to accept concessions to strike a deal. Republicans are willing to not shoot their hostage in the head in exchange for Dems giving the GOP what it wants.

The former is an example of a party negotiating in good faith. The latter is an example of reckless thugs pretending to be a political party.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.

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  • joan on May 26, 2011 3:00 PM:

    Sometimes it is interesting to read Al Jazeera English online, their feeling is that the American Congress and Netanyahu leave Palestine no other option but to declare themselves an independent state, they know Netanyahu will never make peace, and the other Arab countries will probably support Palestine.Our congress was sickening last week, I was really ashamed.

  • Napoleon on May 26, 2011 3:00 PM:

    And thankfully that clown Obama signalled he was willing to go along with it from the first.


    Worst negotiator ever.

  • SYSPROG on May 26, 2011 3:02 PM:

    Yes and if you don't give in to them, then those pesky libruls are 'demagoging' the issue and 'not willing to compromise'...

  • just bill on May 26, 2011 3:14 PM:

    let them shoot the hostage in the head. maybe that will stop hostage-taking in the future

  • Chris on May 26, 2011 3:15 PM:

    Dems are negotiating in good faith? Dems shouldn't be negotiating at all. By agreeing to even negotiate, we've already lost.

  • bdop4 on May 26, 2011 3:20 PM:

    There should be no negotiation on this issue whatsoever.

    Any concession is capitulation and will result in even more ridiculous demands the next time around.

    Throw them in the pressure cooker, and turn up the heat.

  • Danny on May 26, 2011 3:39 PM:

    Dems are running out the clock. Repubs are getting more unpopular every day because of the sword they just chose to throw themselves on. When we're getting close to august they'll be so battered over by the Ryan plan that their famous cojones are nowhere to be seen and they'll sign on to whatever face saving measure the dems allow them, to avoid beeing seen as the morons who both voted to end medicare & give tax cuts to billionaires, and wrecked the economy in a childish partisan game.

    The dems played this one perfectly. They set the trap by playing meek, and the repubs walked right into it. All you backseat drivers around here got nothing on them. Let the adults handle this one, and just chill.

  • Richard on May 26, 2011 4:03 PM:

    With regards to any Democrats thinking to make compromise deals with the GOP on the debt ceiling, I'd strongly advise them to keep this fable in mind:

    The Scorpion and the Frog

    A scorpion and a frog meet on the bank of a stream and the scorpion asks the frog to carry him across on its back. The frog asks, "How do I know you won't sting me?" The scorpion says, "Because if I do, I will die too."

    The frog is satisfied, and they set out, but in midstream, the scorpion stings the frog. The frog feels the onset of paralysis and starts to sink, knowing they both will drown, but has just enough time to gasp "Why?"

    Replies the scorpion: "Its my nature..."

  • zeitgeist on May 26, 2011 4:23 PM:

    glad to see Danny still believes in 10-dimensional chess and all that. . .

    Dems long ago gave up hope of seeing a clean bill

    Letting the world know this was the critical tactical mistake. And you knew the Dems would make one.

    Setting the narrative as "this is too important to play games with - we need a clean bill now to provide certainty to the economy and we can discuss debt reduction later" was key. Once you move off that position, you muddy the message in ways that the public can't or won't follow. Put more crassly in the words of an old joke, you've established what you are, you're left just haggling over the price.

  • Joe Friday on May 26, 2011 4:40 PM:

    The White House should do nothing. When the time comes, stop paying the defense contractors as they are heavily RightWing, stop paying the insurance companies as they are heavily RightWing, stop paying any Republican-friendly medical providers, and so on.

    If anyone asks about the debt-ceiling, direct them to the House Republican Majority as it is their job to increase the debt-ceiling which they are failing to do.

  • Danny on May 26, 2011 4:47 PM:

    @zeitgeist

    Your working under the assumption that it would be possible to completely sidestep long term deficit reduction. It won't, because long-term deficits are indeed a real problem, and real people are really concerned about them.

    It's perfectly within democrats interests to cut a favourable deal that doesn't shrink the deficit this year, but shrinks it some years into the future, if we can cut the deal on our terms.

    The nice thing about doing that is that if the public feels that the issue with trillion dollar deficits each year ten-twenty years into the future has been adressed, and we're looking at 3-400 billion deficits, then they will be even less prone to buy the repubs pitch on Medicare or anything else. They'll be less prone to oppose a short term investment in job growth.

    A long term deficit deal along the lines of Obamas proposal is in our interest, because it strengthens our hand on all the other stuff up for grabs right now.

  • Ron Byers on May 26, 2011 4:53 PM:

    Who is actually negotiating this for the Democrats? Joe Biden? Well he has done a good job of snookering the Republicans so far. I would wouldn't through up my hands in disgust just yet.

  • Trollop on May 26, 2011 5:00 PM:

    I keep saying, these people are international terrorists! Anyone who holds the world's monetary prosperity hostage is engaging in international terrorism. This is not a joke, these people should be imprisoned.

  • zeitgeist on May 26, 2011 5:09 PM:

    Danny, I agree that a debt reduction agreement is good politics for the Dems -- it takes off the table the only issue on which the R's seem to be getting any electoral traction. But I disagree with tying it to the debt ceiling. Very bad precedent -- the debt ceiling should always be a clean bill.

  • Danny on May 26, 2011 5:32 PM:

    @zeitgeist

    On that I agree.

    But there's the nice side benefit that there's a ticking clock to the negotiations and that clock I think the repubs will realize is not necessarily working to their advantage.

  • Danny on May 26, 2011 6:05 PM:

    @gdb

    Isn't the ideal outcome a deficit deal that shrinks the deficit taking effect a couple of years into the future and then a jobs bill that takes effect now?

    That's what Maynard Keynes would propose, were he alive.

  • Danny on May 26, 2011 7:01 PM:

    Who are "we" and how do you know what's gonna be in the final deal this summer?

  • Joe Friday on May 26, 2011 7:08 PM:

    Danny,

    Your working under the assumption that it would be possible to completely sidestep long term deficit reduction. It won't, because long-term deficits are indeed a real problem, and real people are really concerned about them.

    But that's decades and decades away.

    Not to mention that cutting spending in a down economy is economically counterproductive and actually INCREASES debt. See Britain.

  • Doug on May 26, 2011 7:13 PM:

    "It is the only (slim) hope for a progressive result: BHOP and the Repubs get blamed for the tanked economy." gdb @ 5:42 PM.

    Once again you're confusing what's best for YOUR ego with what's best for progressivism and the country.
    A "tanked economy" in 2012 would, most likely, result in Republicans winning the WH, Senate and House as millions of voters, distrusting both parties, stay home. We've already seen that Republican/Teabaggers can win low-turnout elections; add the Citizens United ruling that allows unlimited spending and many of the low-information voters may also be snookered (again!).
    Of course, if THAT'S what it takes to make you feel good about yourself...

  • Danny on May 26, 2011 7:27 PM:

    @Joe Friday

    Yes, sure. That's why I hope the dems will be able to strike a deal that cuts the deficit long term, but doesn't hurt the economy short term.

    In fact I wrote exactly that in the paragraph following the one you quoted. Did you stop reading?

    This one:

    >> It's perfectly within democrats interests to cut a favourable deal that doesn't shrink the deficit this year, but shrinks it some years into the future, if we can cut the deal on our terms.

  • Joe Friday on May 26, 2011 8:12 PM:

    Danny,

    Yes, sure. That's why I hope the dems will be able to strike a deal that cuts the deficit long term, but doesn't hurt the economy short term.

    How is that supposed to happen when what the Republicans are proposing does just the opposite, by increasing the deficit long-term and hurting the national economy short-term ?

    Any compromise to that proposal would only increase the long-term debt a little less and hurt the national economy short-term a little less.

    It's like only hitting yourself in the head with a hammer 10 times instead of 12 times.

  • Danny on May 26, 2011 8:52 PM:

    @Joe

    I've already addressed all of that upthread. But to rehash: I think for different reasons that the dems will "win" the negotiations. See my first post.

    Any compromise to that proposal would only increase the long-term debt a little less and hurt the national economy short-term a little less.

    Nah. You haven't seen what "any compromise" is yet, so you're talking out your -ss.

  • Joe Friday on May 26, 2011 11:08 PM:

    I'm afraid not.

    One need not know the specifics to know that any compromise of what the Republicans have proposed will, by definition, increase the long-term debt and hurt the national economy short-term. It's merely a matter of to what degree.

  • Danny on May 27, 2011 2:09 AM:

    Joe Friday:

    "any compromise of what the Republicans have proposed"

    This phrase does not really make sense.

    But my guess is that you're assuming some kind of split the difference outcome. What I told you before was that you dont know if that assumption is warranted. I don't think it is - and I wrote why in my first post in this thread.

  • Joe Friday on May 27, 2011 11:32 AM:

    Then your faulty assumption is that there will be zero spending cuts. Speaking of someone talking out their ass....

  • Rick Taylor on June 24, 2011 4:19 PM:

    "That may seem like an exaggeration, but it�s really not. On the debt ceiling, Dems long ago gave up hope of seeing a clean bill, and want to strike a deal on longer-debt debt reduction."

    That was a mistake. There's no reason why a long term grand bargain should be attached to a bill to raise the debt ceiling when both parties have agreed its necessary. By acceding to the Republican demand, they accepted the premise that it is legitimate to use the debt ceiling as a bargaining chip.

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