Who’s “Serious” Now?

The President’s formal opening offer on a fiscal deal to avoid year-end appropriations sequestrations and a full expiration of the Bush tax cuts hit Capitol Hill last night, and congressional Republicans are outraged that he offered pretty much what he’s been publicly saying he’d offer from the moment the talks began. Indeed, the offer is thought to be a “slap in the face” because it did not include the concessions Republicans have been demanding for moving even an inch on taxes, most notably highly specific spending cut proposals that could give bipartisan cover to the GOP’s most avaricious dreams.

In terms of the thinking at the White House, it seems Ezra Klein has nailed it again:

Perhaps the key lesson the White House took from the last couple of years is this: Don’t negotiate with yourself. If Republicans want to cut Medicare, let them propose the cuts. If they want to raise revenue through tax reform, let them identify the deductions. If they want deeper cuts in discretionary spending, let them settle on a number. And, above all, if they don’t like the White House’s preferred policies, let them propose their own. That way, if the White House eventually does give in and agree to some of their demands, Republicans will feel like they got one over on the president. A compromise isn’t measured by what you offer, it’s measured by what the other side feels they made you concede.

The GOP is right: This isn’t a serious proposal. But it’s not evidence that Obama isn’t serious. He’s very serious about not negotiating with himself, and his opening bid proves it. Now that they’ve leaked his initial offer, the next question is obvious: What’s their offer?

Answering that question is problematic, for the very interesting reason that what Republicans want most–benefit cuts in Medicare and Medicaid, and if possible Social Security–is what they want least to identify themselves with in any kind of public way.

Already, Rush Limbaugh is telling Republicans they should just cancel negotiations and let Obama take total responsibility for whatever happens. To the extent that Obama’s strategy involves forcing Republicans to very openly identify themselves with very specific and very unpopular domestic spending cuts before he deems them as being “on the table,” Rush will soon have some “serious” company.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.