Understanding the nature of a compromise

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.