CAN’T ANYBODY HERE PLAY THIS GAME?…. At face value, congressional Republicans went into budget talks playing a strikingly weak hand. They’re an unpopular party, pushing unpopular spending cuts, going up against a more popular president. Of the three main players — the House, the Senate, and the White House — the GOP controls about one-half of one-third of the relevant institutions.

And yet, who seems to be calling the shots here?

The New York Times had an interesting summary of the lay of the land, emphasizing the fact that Democrats seem to realize they let this debate slip away from them.

Both parties remain uncertain about which of them would bear the brunt of public anger if Congress cannot agree on financing federal operations for the final half of this fiscal year and government agencies shut down or drastically scale back the services they can provide.

Even many Democrats believe that House Republicans have gotten the better of the antispending, antigovernment argument. But Democrats insist that is because much of the public does not appreciate the impact the Republicans’ $61 billion in proposed reductions would have on spending for popular social programs if those cuts were to become law with just half of the current fiscal year remaining.

Democrats are right; most of the country has no idea the extent to which the GOP’s proposed cuts would be devastating to key domestic priorities. These are cuts that, if put to a poll, the vast majority of the American mainstream would reject out of hand.

But here’s another thought: maybe most of the country has no idea how brutal these cuts are because Dems haven’t told them.

In 1995, when the Gingrich-led Republicans confronted the Clinton White House, the president had a mantra he’d repeat endlessly — it was called M2E2. Clinton would say he’s prepared to negotiate with Republicans, but wasn’t prepared to go along with deep cuts to “Medicare, Medicaid, education, and the environment,” four popular measures voters didn’t want to see slashed.

In 2011, Dems never quite got around to picking their own M2E2. Criticisms of the GOP plan have been all over the map, made more complicated by the fact that Democrats themselves have been far too quick to buy into the dubious notion that Americans actually want a focus on the deficit instead of the economy.

This debate quickly got away from Dems, but it didn’t have to be this way. Republicans are winning, at least for now, with a very weak hand.

If I’m a Democratic strategist, I would have recommended a couple of things. First, pick a handful of the most jarring cuts in the GOP plan, and repeat them ad nauseum. Ideally, they’d be cuts most Americans would find offensive — “Republicans want to slash funding for education, medical research, job training, and homeland security. We think that’s irresponsible.” Say this over and over again, and sooner or later, folks will start to know that the GOP wants to cut education, medical research, job training, and homeland security.

Second, turn the GOP line around and start calling the cuts what they are: job killing. There are multiple independent analyses — from Macroeconomic Advisers, Ben Bernanke, Moody’s Analytics, Economic Policy Institute, and others — all saying that the Republican plan would cost the economy hundreds of thousands of jobs. John Boehner gift-wrapped this by saying, “So be it” when asked about the GOP plan to deliberately make unemployment worse.

Dems made some hay out of this for a while, but let it fade. It should have been the only thing the party talked about for weeks — Republicans want to make the jobs crisis worse, on purpose — but it wasn’t. They could have come up with a simple little slogan — “the GOP plan is bad for the middle class and bad for jobs” — that could have been easily repeated, instead of, “Don’t worry, we like cuts, too.”

Sure, I realize it might be frustrating to Democrats in Washington to be on the defensive right now, but much of this is the result of the party choosing not to go on the offensive when it had the chance.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.