The Utterly Atrocious Grand Bargain
Speaker of the House John Boehner holds his weekly press conference at the US Capitol on March 7, 2013 in Washington, DC. "If the President continues to insist on tax hikes, I don't think we're going to get very far," Boehner said.
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Washington has Grand Bargain fever, again. Thanks to the sequestration, Republican government-shrinking mania and Barack Obama’s apparently sincere desire to get some sort of huge long-term debt deal done, the Grand Bargain is looking more possible than at any point since the heady days of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility.
For some reason, the options for dealing with sequestration — a self-inflicted made-up austerity crisis — are being purposefully and pointlessly limited to a) spending cuts, either those in sequestration or different ones, or b) spending cuts and tax increases. “Let’s just not do this, everyone” is rarely presented as a viable option. Instead, the single best end result, according to lots of pundits, Democrats and even Republicans, is the Mythical Grand Bargain.
This is awful news, for most people. A “grand bargain” is not going to be good. But after Barack Obama had fancy dinners with some Republicans last week, everyone is again hopeful. The president is hopeful. John Boehner is hopeful. David Gergen is probably hopeful. They can all taste the Bargain. Ooh, it’ll be so great when we get that Bargain!
The Grand Bargain is revered, among the Sunday Show set, as a goal essentially for its own sake. Its Grandness is its point. The thought of the parties coming together, agreeing on a mutually unpleasant compromise involving great political “sacrifice” (symbolic sacrifice for the politicians, likely eventual actual sacrifice for the constituents), warms the cockles of the Beltway Establishmentarian’s heart. If liberals and conservatives can’t stand the deal, all the better, even if one or both sides have perfectly valid reasons for blanching. The Bargain must, by necessity, reduce the deficit by “reining in entitlements.” “Entitlements” means Social Security and Medicare, two very popular and successful programs designed to keep retired people alive. Social Security and Medicare “reforms” that make both programs less generous are among the least popular policy proposals in America today, but both parties — at least, the leaders of both parties — support them (rhetorically). Cutting these programs is probably the single highest priority of the tiny centrist elite, and it has been for years, excepting the usual run-ups to our various wars. Part of the elaborate theater of Performing Seriousness in Washington is claiming that “everyone agrees” that the cuts are urgent and necessary, while also bemoaning that no politicians are “brave” enough to support them.
Cuts to those programs have been offered, repeatedly, by the president, to Republicans. Republicans, thus far, have pretended not to notice, because their parallel news media misinforms them and because they incorrectly believe the president to be insincere in his desire to hack away at those very popular and successful programs. The recent Obama charm offensive is designed to convince Republicans that he is very sincere in his efforts to get a Serious Debt Deal, involving “entitlement” cuts and tax reform.
Here’s a fun secret: Tax reform (in this case referring to eliminating or scaling back “tax expenditures”) is technically a conservative policy priority, even if elected Republicans refuse to ever support it for real. This is a compromise in which conservative policy is being offered in exchange for conservative support for a conservative policy. The sequester and Obama’s Bargain quest mean that Republicans can choose between allowing a Democrat to “take credit” for cutting the two most popular programs in the country or they can just live with the already-passed government spending cut that they are also able to blame on the president. Because the party’s “brand” is effectively beyond tarnishing, and because they are still guaranteed control of the House and veto power in the Senate for the foreseeable future, their bargaining position is actually much stronger than even they seem to realize.