Going backwards with 19 days to go

As scheduled, participants in the debt-reduction talks met for about two hours yesterday. It’s safe to say the discussions didn’t go well.

Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House majority leader, said he raised the idea of taking what savings could be achieved now — roughly $1.4 trillion — and then having additional votes to raise the debt limit again before the elections in November 2012, with Republicans ultimately seeking a total of at least $2.4 trillion in cuts with no tax increases.

At this, Mr. Cantor said, the president “got very agitated, seemingly.” Mr. Cantor quoted the president as saying: “Eric, don’t call my bluff. I’m going to the American people with this.”

Then, Mr. Cantor said, “He shoved back and said, ‘I’ll see you tomorrow’ and walked out.”

“I was a little taken aback,” Mr. Cantor added.

Democrats said that Mr. Obama’s departure was not abrupt, but that he had forcefully made a case that Republicans had been unwilling to compromise. “Enough’s enough,” one Democrat familiar with the talks quoted Mr. Obama as saying.

It’s not surprising that accounts from participants vary, but piecing together the various accounts, it appears President Obama was wrapping up the meeting for the afternoon. Cantor interrupted him three times to push for a temporary increase — an idea Cantor himself had previously rejected — in which Republicans would get significant cuts in exchange for nothing.

Obama reportedly found this hard to take. “I have reached the point where I say enough,” Obama said, according to Reuters. “Would Ronald Reagan be sitting here? I’ve reached my limit. This may bring my presidency down, but I will not yield on this.”

Ordinarily, powerful officials involved in these kinds of high-level talks stick to vague generalities when talking to reporters afterwards. In contrast, Cantor rushed to reporters yesterday to whine that President Obama had hurt his feelings — a pathetic display that reminded many of Newt Gingrich’s back-of-the-plane tantrum in 1995.

Cantor isn’t just being a pain is the ass in the room; he’s also undermining the process itself by pouting for the cameras.

And remember, if Cantor isn’t satisfied, he’ll lead the way in crashing the economy on purpose.

Sam Stein’s report added, “It was the fifth straight day of talks, but the first in which attendees, speaking on background, were willing to admit that steps were taken backwards.”

Indeed, theatrics aside, the substantive gaps between the parties appear to be turning into chasms. They disagree on cuts, the baseline used to determine the size of the cuts, the timeframe for the cuts, the need for revenue, the role of defense spending in the cuts, and mechanisms to enforce the savings. Is any progress being made on any of these fronts? By all accounts, no.

The other day I compared today’s Republican Party to a not-terribly-bright organized-crime family, run entirely by petulant children. In retrospect, that was probably insulting to children.

The president has set a Friday deadline to determine, once and for all, whether an agreement is possible. If not, attention will turn to contingency plans, most notably Mitch McConnell’s proposal.