The pattern that ‘puzzles’ the president

At his press conference the other day, President Obama noted the recommendations of the bipartisan deficit-reduction commission (which, by the way, failed to reach an agreement). He mentioned in passing that his White House set up the structure for the commission: “As you will recall, this was originally bipartisan legislation that some of the Republican supporters of decided to vote against when I said I supported it — that seems to be a pattern that I’m still puzzled by.”

It is, to be sure, quite a pattern. For two-and-a-half years, Obama has run into congressional Republicans who not only refuse to take “yes” for an answer, but routinely oppose their own ideas when the president is willing to accept them.

This seems especially relevant in the context of the current debt-reduction talks. At a certain level, it’s almost comical — here we have a Democratic president agreeing with a conservative Republican House Speaker on a massive deal that would lower the debt by over $4 trillion over the next decade. It would tilt heavily in the GOP’s direction, and address the problem Republicans pretend to care about most. Obama is even willing to consider significant entitlement “reforms,” which should be music to the ears of the right.

And yet, in the latest example that “puzzles” the president, Republicans aren’t interested.

Now, part of this is obviously the result of Republicans adopting a faith-based approach to revenue, which happens to be wildly disconnected to reality. But that’s not the only angle that matters. Matt Yglesias had a good item the other day that raised a point that’s often lost in the shuffle.

[H]ere we get to the problem that’s recurred throughout Obama’s time in office. If members of Congress think like partisans who want to capture the White House, then the smart strategy for them is to refuse to do whatever it is the president wants. The content of the president’s desire is irrelevant. But the more ambitious his desire is, the more important it is to turn him down.

After all, if the President wants a big bipartisan deal on the deficit, then a big bipartisan deal on the deficit is “a win for President Obama,” which means a loss for the anti-Obama side. When Obama didn’t want to embrace Bowles-Simpson, then failure to embrace Bowles-Simpson was a valid critique of him. But had Obama embraced Bowles-Simpson, then it would have been necessary for his opponents to reject it.

For weeks, many have marveled at the priorities of the Republican policy wish-list — given a choice between the larger debt-reduction plan in American history and preserving some tax breaks for the wealthy, GOP officials at nearly every level strongly prefer the latter. Indeed, for nearly all Republicans, it’s such a no-brainer, this question is almost silly.

But there’s a separate challenge — Republicans have a choice between advancing policies they ostensibly agree with and Obama scoring a legislative victory. And as it turns out, that’s a no-brainer, too, since GOP lawmakers don’t really care about governing so much as they care about denying the president political victories. It might make them appear ridiculous — why would anyone reject their own ideas? — but looking foolish isn’t a major concern for congressional Republicans.

Obviously, this makes compromise literally impossible, and all but guarantees the least productive legislative session in many years. But it also suggests the president needs to adapt to an awkward set of circumstances: given Republican beliefs, Obama must realize his support for a legislative idea necessarily means it’s less likely to happen.