Never underestimate the power of spite

It’s pretty remarkable what President Obama offered to give up to House Speaker John Boehner in order to get a “Grand Bargain,” only to have the Republican leader walk away. Why would Boehner reject a proposal tilted so heavily in the GOP’s favor? In part because it came from President Obama.

To be sure, if it were up to the Speaker, and he had some semblance of control over the bulk of his caucus, Boehner probably would have taken the extremely favorable deal. But he knew he’d have to take it back to his caucus, and he also knew he couldn’t get the votes.

The larger point, though, is that House Republicans aren’t just unwilling to listen to reason, they’re also unwilling to agree with the president.

Consider this George Will column from the other day:

The Tea Party can succeed in 16 months by helping elect a president who will not veto necessary reforms. To achieve that, however, Tea Partyers must not help the incumbent achieve his objectives in the debt-ceiling dispute.

One of those is to strike a splashy bargain involving big — but hypothetical and nonbinding — numbers. This would enable President Obama to run away from his record and run as a debt-reducing centrist.

Got that? The important thing isn’t to strike a compromise and prevent a disaster; the important thing is prevent Obama from claiming a political victory.

This is a striking mentality that makes progress next to impossible. But it’s a strain of thought that dominates Republican thinking right now — if Obama is going to look good by striking a bipartisan deal, the GOP priority must scuttle the deal, regardless of merit, to prevent Obama from looking good. As Ezra Klein noted yesterday, “[L]etting the president look like a dealmaker would potentially dim the GOP’s chances of retaking the White House in 2012…. And so Boehner walked.”

Remember, just a few days ago, the Gang of Six unveiled its debt-reduction blueprint. President Obama had some complimentary things to say about the plan, which led many Republicans to immediately and reflexively reject it. After all, they assumed, if Obama is offering praise for the plan, they don’t want anything to do with it.

Have we really reached the point at which GOP officials are so filled with spite that they’d turn down a sweet deal from the White House, based entirely on their hatred of the president? Under the circumstances, that hardly seems like a stretch.

In a twisted sort of way, it’s relatively good news, then, that Republicans don’t even want to talk to the White House anymore. The negotiations at this point are between congressional Dems and the congressional GOP. There are some hopes that an agreement — if there’s an agreement — might stand a better chance if Obama’s fingerprints aren’t on it.

Welcome to the politics of petty, childish spite.