Everyone with a part to play

EVERYONE WITH A PART TO PLAY…. Last week, several top transition officials, including Lawrence Summers, talked to some Democratic senators about what the incoming administration has in mind for an economic rescue plan, and the lawmakers appeared rather unimpressed. Indeed, some reliably progressive Democrats, including John Kerry and Tom Harkin, seemed none too pleased.

Digby raised the notion of this being some kind of kabuki theater.

It seems very unlikely to me that Kerry is acting out of school, but is rather playing the role of the liberal stimulus spending obsessive who will (hopefully) balance out the tax cut fetishists in the senate negotiations, giving Obama some space to compromise at least somewhere to the left of The Club For Growth. (Unfortunately, that still leaves us with the Blue Dog deficit hawks, but maybe Rahm has pictures or something.)

It’s all just a guess, of course, but I simply don’t believe that Kerry and Conrad are out there running at Obama from the left on their own. They just don’t have it in them. They are staking out this position for negotiating purposes on his behalf.

Maybe so. The notion that Obama is aiming deliberately low with the expectations that Congress will expand the size and scope of the package is not at all unreasonable. In fact, Obama hinted as much this week during an interview with CNBC’s John Harwood: “We’ve seen ranges from $800 (billion) to $1.3 trillion. And our attitude was that given the legislative process, if we start towards the low end of that, we’ll see how it develops.”

Nate Silver made the case the other day that Obama is using a “Price is Right negotiating strategy,” which effectively lets Senate Democrats “do his dirty work for him.”

All of the sudden, the administration, which is about to spend at least $800 billion, gets to play the role of the fiscally prudent tightwads, negotiating against the Senate Democrats. This has at least two benefits. One, it requires less of the administration’s political capital to sell the package. And two, it completely co-opts the conservative opposition. Unless you’re Paul Krugman or Greg Mankiw, you probably don’t really have any idea whether $300 billion or $800 billion or $1.2 trillion is the right amount to spend; the numbers are too large, the scope of the stimulus too unprecedented, to provide for any absolute frame of reference. So the frame of reference is relative rather than absolute. If you’re Mitch McConnell or Mary Landireu or Bob Corker and you see that John Kerry thinks that $800 billion is too little — well then, ‘gal darn it, this Obama fella must be doing something right.

Imagine instead that Obama had started out at $1.3 trillion, assuming that the conservatives in the Senate would negotiate him down. Then we have some big, old-fashioned brouhaha about economic philosophy, with Obama and the Senate Democrats lining up against the Blue Dogs and the Republicans. This strikes me as a considerably more dangerous negotiation, because while the Senate Democrats can set the ceiling if Obama starts too low, there is nobody really there to set the floor if he starts too high — the Republicans have no real imperative to compromise on any stimulus. Public sentiment, moreover, which now favors the stimulus, might easily have turned against it if there was some sticker shock on the initial price tag, and once public sentiment turns against something like this, it can be hard to put back into the bottle.

And if this is right, and I suspect it might be, everyone has a rule to play in the kabuki theater to “force” Obama to do what he wants to do anyway. As D-Day explained the other day, that would include grassroots pressure, leaning on the soon-to-be president to move towards acceptance of a more ambitious plan.