Political Animal


June 28, 2011 4:20 PM Understanding the nature of a compromise

By Steve Benen

Everyone seems to agree that policymakers will have to reach a “compromise” when it comes to the deficit-reduction talks and the debt ceiling. And while Democrats and Republicans are struggling to strike a reasonable deal, what often goes overlooked is the fact that the parties don’t even agree on what a compromise is.

We know how this has always worked in the past. Whenever the parties have sought to strike a fiscal deal, they’ve argued over the ratio of spending cuts to tax increases. It would make sense, then, for Dems and Republicans to use this precedent to find some common ground.

But the GOP intends to re-write the rules. Marc Thiessen, a former Bush speechwriter and current Washington Post columnist, argued yesterday:

Let’s be clear: Compromise here isn’t spending cuts for a tax increase; compromise is spending cuts for a debt-limit increase. Republicans elected in the Tea Party wave of 2010 campaigned on a promise to reduce the national debt. They are now being asked to turn around a half a year later and vote to raise the national debt. The vast majority of Republican voters don’t want them to raise the debt limit at all. The only way these Republican legislators can vote for a debt-ceiling increase without getting thrown out of office is to show their constituents that they secured unprecedented cuts in current spending — and ironclad constraints on future spending — in exchange. Tax increases? They are not even part of the equation.

It’s important to understand how deeply ridiculous this is.

For one thing, Thiessen is misstating some of the basics. Republicans vowed to reduce the debt, but they’re not, as he put it, “being asked to turn around a half a year later and vote to raise the national debt.” This is simply wrong. They’re being asked to raise the debt ceiling, which isn’t the same thing. They’ll be raising the debt no matter what policy is adopted — even if Paul Ryan’s budget plan were adopted to the letter, Republicans would still have to raise the debt ceiling, and Thiessen shouldn’t confuse people with misleading phrasing.

For another, as Ezra Klein noted yesterday, when it comes to this process, “There’s no world in which taxes aren’t part of that equation. Without taxes, there is no equation, and no way of telling whether we’ve got surpluses as far as the eye can see, or deficits until the cows come home. “

But the key angle here is how Thiessen defines “compromise.” Democratic and Republican leaders agree that the debt ceiling has to be raised; it’s not optional. Once that’s established, the question then becomes what it will take to get reluctant lawmakers to do what they have to do.

Dems have an idea: Republicans can get a lot of what they want, and in exchange, Democrats will get a little of what they want. Borrowing a metaphor from a month ago, Democrats are effectively saying, “We’ve agreed to have lunch, but we disagree about where to go. You want Mexican food; we want Chinese food. Let’s compromise — we’ll join you for Mexican today, and in exchange, we’ll get some Chinese takeout for dinner.”

Republicans are responding, “We have a better idea. 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 are willing to accept a trade-off — they’ll accept spending cuts in exchange for at least a little new revenue. That, to them, seems fair.

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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  • SkJL on June 28, 2011 4:27 PM:

    Either way we lose - period.

  • ET on June 28, 2011 4:27 PM:

    Republicans in more recent years have always defined compromise is do what they want.

    GOP in power - we are the majority so stuff it and quit you whining.
    Dems in power - we know best and we will whine and make you look bad until we get what we want because we are the Real Americans and Dems are just commie/socialusts looking to destroy America and the media will support us because they are scared of us too.

  • Trollop on June 28, 2011 4:29 PM:

    Have any DemocRats tried "Fuck off"? Or perhaps, "You're insane monetary terrorists who will be jailed if you do not comply"?

    I'm so tired of hearing about this insanity!

  • Darsan 54 on June 28, 2011 4:30 PM:

    Why do the promises the Republicans campaigned on obligate the Democrats to follow them? Again, the Repubs won a lotta little local elections, but those do not make a national mandate.

    Dems need to grow spines and fight for what they campaigned on.

  • Roger the Cabin Boy on June 28, 2011 4:32 PM:

    Steve, you need to get on Rachel's show and talk this up.

  • Redshift on June 28, 2011 4:39 PM:

    Republicans elected in the Tea Party wave of 2010 campaigned on a promise to reduce the national debt.

    Wow, just like Democrats were elected in a wave in 2008 (and 2006) on a promise to enact universal health care, so Republicans were obligated to support that, right?


  • T2 on June 28, 2011 4:43 PM:

    Yet poll after poll show more people choosing to let the debt limit expire than raise it.
    The citizenry simply does not understand the issue and ramifications. I lay that right at the door to the Oval Office. It's getting to the point where I'm starting to wonder about Obama.

  • zandru on June 28, 2011 4:46 PM:

    Frankly, I can't envision any scenario in which the thugs do not win. The Democrats are the only responsible adults in the room. They've just handed negotiations over to a guy who, while highly intelligent and experienced, just doesn't know how to handle terrorists; he's given away the store every time.

    And the public is totally out to lunch on this. It's too technical for the "bubble-headed bleached blondes" (of both sexes) on the nightly snooze to be able to explain to them. A lot of folks think it's a good idea to keep the ceiling where it is - that'll stop that hateful "spending" (insert scary gestures).

    Truly, nobody knows the difference between the deficit, the national debt and the debt ceiling, so water cooler-style discussions are just random word soup. However, once the US has defaulted, that phrase "full faith & credit of the United States" will be as valuable as Confederate scrip in 1866.

    Only one party wants to stop this from happening. Will they, in fact, do ANYTHING to prevent it? And is there anything that we, as voters & citizens, can do about it?

  • xando foote on June 28, 2011 5:03 PM:

    Judging from polls, Americans don't understand the problem and the ramifications of default on the debt. Won't someone please explain these things soon? Mr. Obama perhaps?

    A significant majority of Americans support closing tax loopholes for corporations and wealthy, allowing Bush-era rates for wealthy to sunset, and not touching medical programs for the poor and elderly. Why does the GOP continue to oppose their own constituents?

    I think these are reasonable questions.

  • Stephen Stralka on June 28, 2011 5:18 PM:

    I don't see the Democrats caving here, not because they've suddenly grown spines but because the Republicans have yet to demand anything that wouldn't be just as damaging as not raising the debt ceiling. I mean, "ironclad constraints on future spending"? Yes, let's make the entire nation as ungovernable as California.

    It seems to me that the deal the Republicans have already rejected is what a humiliating Democratic capitulation would have looked like just a couple of years ago. $2.4 trillion in cuts and only $400 billion in new revenues should be considered a huge victory for the GOP, especially since they only control the House.

    In terms of the hostage metaphor, the Republicans right now are basically holding a gun to the economy's head and threatening to pull the trigger unless the Democrats agree to strangle the hostage and then shoot themselves. When you realize the hostage is fucked anyway, your focus shifts from saving the hostage to limiting the damage and trying to hold the hostage takers accountable.

  • grandpajohn on June 28, 2011 5:26 PM:

    Another reasonable question, why does the public continue to vote for republicans who totally ignore the things that a majority of the public want and support?

    Another question, when is someone in the MSM going to have the balls to ask the republican leadership "Where are the bills for the job creation that you campaigned on?"

    One more, when the hell are we going to get a grown up captcha, instead of this moronic double tracing over letters that reminds me of the type writing that you see in special ed classes?

  • max on June 28, 2011 5:31 PM:

    "One more, when the hell are we going to get a grown up captcha, instead of this moronic double tracing over letters that reminds me of the type writing that you see in special ed classes?"

    Apparently not, and it's terminally annoying. A lot of good comments are lost in the ether.

  • zeitgeist on June 28, 2011 5:37 PM:

    the real point of Theissen's piece, however, is that it shows how irrelevant the Republicans consider the Democrats -- even though the R's controlly only one of the 3 requisite seats of power in the process.

    i find interesting the admission at the heart of the Theissen quote above: structurally, Republicans are looking for a compromise between the governing hat they wear and the Republican base. It isn't that R's and D's define compromise differently, it is that the Dems still believe they are part of the game and are the party with whom the R's are compromising. the R's are ignoring the Dems completely: this compromise they are contemplating is between two different factions of Rs.

    its almost pathetic and pitiful how structurally impotent this makes the Dems appear -- and why the Dems don't do more about it with the larger structural power they actually have remains a mystery to me.

  • Ron Byers on June 28, 2011 5:59 PM:

    McConnell's threat is "a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing."

    Don't forget this hostage is wearing a bomb and holding a kill switch. If Republicans shoot the hostage in the head, thier friends and patrons are going to be hurt far more than anyone else.

  • square1 on June 28, 2011 6:10 PM:

    Republicans understand that the entire point of political power is to further your agenda. Yes, it is true that you can't always get want you want. And in those cases, compromise becomes necessary. But only losers voluntarily compromise.

    Republicans keep their eyes on the ball. If they want "X", they will not settle for 25% of X, or 50% of X, or 75% of X unless they have to.

    And why should they? If Democrats will keep giving in and giving in, why not keep asking for more? Sure, eventually, Democrats may draw a line in the sand, but until then, why should the GOP cut a deal? Who leaves money on the table? Losers.

    BTW, Stephen Stralka is 100% correct with this: It seems to me that the deal the Republicans have already rejected is what a humiliating Democratic capitulation would have looked like just a couple of years ago.

    Unless $2T of that $2.4T in spending cuts is comprised of tax expenditures for corporations and the wealthy, Democrats might as well not show up to the polls in 2012.

  • Patriotic Liberal on June 28, 2011 6:12 PM:

    It is also worth noting that when the Dems swept into Congress in 2007, they wanted to exit from Iraq. Turned out the reverse happened--there was a surge.

    Obama should tell these clowns to stick it where the sun don't shine. Ignore the unconstitutional debt ceiling and tell Americans that Reeps are pulling for the economy to fail.

  • square1 on June 28, 2011 6:36 PM:

    The thing that depresses me is that there is zero hope for a Democratic Presidential primary opponent in 2012.

    Look, realistically, nobody is going to run against Obama from the left and beat him. But, I'm more than a little surprised that there isn't a single person to Obama's left that is willing to at least make a principled run in order to hold Obama accountable.

    While there is much to dislike about the tea partiers, from their frequent open racism to their general rank ignorance on policy matters, what I do respect is that, at the truly grass roots level, these people do put principle ahead of politics.

    If there is a safe GOP seat held by someone they think is a douchebag, they'll primary the person even if it opens up the seat to the Democrats. Sure, sometimes handing a safe GOP seat to the Dems can be politically costly in the short term, but that is what gives the tea partiers power. If they simply rubber stamped whatever Boehner and McConnell wanted, nobody in the GOP would take the tea partiers seriously.

    I mean, Jesus, what is stopping Bernie Sanders from pulling a Ron Paul and running on principle? The guy isn't even a member of the President's party. What are Democrats going to do to Sanders if he runs? Ignore and ridicule him more? Is that possible?

    And what about Feingold? Does that guy have something more important to do with his time? He spent a lot of time in the Senate voting on principle but not making much of a difference. How about actually leading for a change?

  • Goldilocks on June 28, 2011 6:50 PM:

    Still trying to get a handle on this - because it really is kind of exciting: a bright light illuminating the inner nature of the two parties. The contrast is unmistakable, and is close to how Steve delineated it: The former [Dems] is an example of a party negotiating in good faith. The latter [Rethugs] is an example of reckless thugs pretending to be a political party.

    I say 'close' because I'm still uncertain what the Dem strategy is. 'Good faith' undoubtedly; but is there cunning involved? No one is enamored of Mr Obama's deals. OTH, they are quite clever and not without merit. The gripe is mainly with participation in any sort of deal. That's a tricky one - reakpolitik and all that.

    This debt ceiling business is different. At base there was no need to enter any kind of negotiation. If the GOP want to default, let it be on them. They couldn't survive it. The reality, of course, is that the Dems let themselves get sucked into negotiation - exactly as the GOP wanted. So, how do they make the best of a bad job?

    One option is to go the Bernie Sanders' way: something in the nature of 50:50. The other option is to require a modest and manifestly reasonable revenue component. That puts the GOP on the spot. They'll look as ridiculous as they do by refusing. Then the vote comes and the country defaults - which is back to square one. On the other hand, if they accept a modest revenue component they've lost their foothold and the gates open on revenue in principle. At that point revenue finds itself on the table.

    Seems to me that the Dems are playing a winning game here. It's a small concession numerically but a significant one ideologically.

  • Goldilocks on June 28, 2011 7:13 PM:

    For @max and other captcha-deniers: Here's what I do.

    1) Write your piece.

    2) Copy and paste the whole thing to Notepad (or equivalent text editor)

    3) Preview, and edit if necessary

    4) Final copy and paste

    5) Examine the captcha. If it's got foreign characters or you can't be sure of some letters - RECYCLE it

    6) Repeat recycling till you're 'satisfied'

    7) Post

    [8) If it goes bad, you've got your copy. Paste it back in and try again]

    Granted: a pain in the butt, but what else can we do?

  • Jim Keating on June 28, 2011 7:30 PM:

    There is a very simple solution here. The 14th amendment
    requires that we pay out debts; President Obama just needs
    to issue an executive order to increase the debt limit
    as required by the 14th amendment; or, just eliminate the
    requirement to pass a debt increase as unconstitutional.
    Problem solved!

  • zandru on June 28, 2011 7:58 PM:

    Re: Goldilocks and the Captcha

    It's actually simpler. Copy your posting (select and control-C). That way, it's in your Paste buffer. If you have problems with the Captcha AND your back-button fails to work, just paste it back in (control-V) to the blank letters box.

    But I have never had a case where the back button didn't work for me. Select© is adding suspenders to your belt.

    "docalt WRITE", eh? How appropriate...

  • zandru on June 28, 2011 8:04 PM:

    I really do like Jim Keating's solution. That would bust the debt ceiling threat for all time, for all political parties - but nobody (sane) would dare to use it, anyway.

    Convince me that the President would have the nerve to do it. After all, this is the man who would never make a recess appointment, back when it was still possible...

    "reveals ilymoner" - just as I feared.

  • ricardo on June 28, 2011 9:57 PM:

    Forget compromise - Obama needs to assert superiority and discipline and close down these sad, sad negotiations ASAP:
    - Instead, take television time in the next week to announce an administrative state of emergency starting mid-July
    - Obama will make clear that all bondholders and creditors of the United States will continue to be paid in full.
    - However, starting July 15, all Medicare reimbursements to the medical-industrial complex will be withheld and instead IOU's will be issued...(that oughta get the insurance companies' attention)
    - Starting August 1, all Social Security checks and other Social Security distributions will also be withheld, and instead IOU's will be issued...(that oughta get every grey hairs' attention and, trust me, they're going to be boiling mad)
    - Obama will announce that he and Joe Biden are foregoing their usual salaries during this state of emergency...also that the following members of the Democratic caucus in Congress are also taking a pass - he can post a list online.
    - Obama needs to make it perfectly clear in his televised address why these IOU's are being issued - the Republicans have refused to pass a "business as usual" increase to the federal deficit...He needs to explain that - with the United States facing technical insolvency and with Medicare and Social Security making up 40% of the federal budget - with those moneys withheld for the duration of the emergency the United States can afford to pay all bondholder and interest obligations.
    - Outrage and disbelief will ensue and the Republicans will take the blame - just as they did with during Gingrich's shutdown of the federal government. The Repubs will unilaterally fold within a handful of days and the Dem's won't have to give an inch...

  • Schtick on June 28, 2011 10:05 PM:

    Darsan 54 on June 28, 2011 4:30 PM:
    Dems need to grow spines and fight for what they campaigned on.

    Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! You're funny!

    Discussion about crapcha, I have cataracts. I have good days and bad days with my sight. Trying to figure out some of these things really is annoying and going thru a bunch to find one I can read or think I can read is even more annoying. It just plain sucks and whomever wanted it (probably a repub) should be fired.

    crapcha....ghtsmo permit...YAY!

  • jayackroyd on June 28, 2011 10:10 PM:

    John Cole pretty much nailed the restaurant metaphor.

    Dem: "How about Italian?"

    GOP: "Nah. I prefer tire rims and anthrax."

  • Ted Frier on June 29, 2011 6:48 AM:

    Let’s be clear: Compromise here isn’t spending cuts for a tax increase; compromise is a tax increase or President Obama turns Seal Team Six loose on the Republican House leadership. That formulation makes about as much sense as Thissen's.

  • inthewoods on June 29, 2011 11:03 AM:

    "Republicans are responding, “We have a better idea. Let’s compromise — we’ll get the Mexican food we want, and in exchange, we won't set off this nuclear bomb."

    There, fixed that for you.

  • Daddy Love on June 29, 2011 11:50 AM:

    "You give us everything we want, and after that we can all give us everything we want."

    They don't actually believe any of this crap themselves, you know. The GOP is a bunch of greed-driven and power-hungry independent contractors operating under the cover of a moderately-successful brand. The substance of the show is about feeding the rubes, but its intensity is about their own greed.