Giving Your Opponents A Choice

There’s a lot of confusion (and in certain Republican and Democratic quarters, consternation) over the president’s dinner with Republican senators last night, touted by all involved as focused on reviving prospects for a “grand bargain” on the budget. But the more fundamental purpose, which couldn’t have been clearer had the participants put up a big marquee sign outside the Jefferson Hotel advertising the theme, was to exclude House Republicans from such convivial discussions as the irresponsible wreckers they undoubtedly are.

So for the president, the strategic value of such gestures is pretty clear, whether or not they materially improve the prospects of an acceptable budget deal. E.J. Dionne lays it out:

From Obama’s point of view, engaging with Senate Republicans now to reach a broad settlement makes both practical sense, because there is a plausible chance for a deal, and political sense, because he will demonstrate how far he has been willing to go in offering cuts that Republicans say they support. In the process, he would underscore that the current impasse has been caused primarily by the refusal of House Republicans to accept new revenues.

While it’s the GOP that has been using serial, self-created crises to gain political leverage, many in the party are no less worn out by them than the Democrats. “Even we are tired . . . of lurching from one cliff to another,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)told the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday. “I think that’s lending some pressure towards trying to come up with some kind of a grand bargain.”

Such gambits drive some Democrats crazy, partly because they don’t see their utility and partly because they fear Obama will triangulate them and make a deal involving “entitlement reforms” they oppose. But if Obama is simply giving Senate Republicans and the public at large a chance to think about what life would be like if one of our two major parties had not been conquered by ideologues, the price he’s paying may be no higher than the dinner tab.

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.