John Boehner and the notion of ‘common ground’

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) made an appeal to super-committee members yesterday, urging them to work towards a debt-reduction solution built on areas of agreement between the parties. If only his argument was as sensible as it sounds.

Boehner encouraged the committee to hone in on working to reform entitlements such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid in order to meet the committee’s mandate to drop $1.5 trillion from the deficit in the next decade. […]

Explaining that common ground is not analogous to compromise, the speaker called on Democrats and Republicans to come together on areas of agreement without violating the principles that brought them to elected office.

“Common ground doesn’t mean compromising on your principles. Common ground means finding the places where your agenda overlaps with that of the other party, locking arms, and getting it done, without violating your principles,” Boehner said. “The jobs crisis in America today demands that we seek common ground, and act on it where it’s found.”

That seems fair, doesn’t it? Democrats have a policy agenda; Republicans have a very different agenda; and to get something done, the two sides should focus on areas of commonality.

The context, however, makes all the difference. In this case, Boehner was talking about entitlements, and support in both parties for making structural “reforms” to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. If Democrats and Republicans agree that entitlement changes are worthwhile to address long-term financing challenges, in the Speaker’s mind, it means the parties should “lock arms” and adopt these changes.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) made a very similar argument over the summer: “We both agree on doing something that’s good for the country, which is dealing with entitlements. Why don’t we just do that? Why do we have to sit here and say we still got to raise taxes when we don’t agree on that?”

The problem here is that GOP leaders don’t seem to understand what the words “compromise” and “common ground” mean.

Consider an example. Let’s say I go to pick up some lunch at the sandwich shop around the corner. The guy behind the counter and I are prepared to engage in a transaction — I’ll give him $5 and he’ll give me a sandwich. But I decide I’m not fully satisfied with the terms. “Look,” I tell the guy, “both of us agree that I should get the sandwich. It’s already right there on the counter, and this is the area where both of our agendas overlap. So, let’s focus on this area of common ground, I’ll eat the sandwich, and we can argue about the $5 later.”

This is, in effect, what Republican leaders are telling Democrats. Leading Dems in Congress and at the White House have told the GOP they’re willing to accept some entitlement “reforms” in exchange for some additional tax revenue from the wealthy. It’s a balanced approach that calls for broad sacrifice, which addresses the debt problem created by Republicans over the last decade.

Boehner and Cantor are saying, “Well, we both want to tackle entitlements, but we disagree about taxes, so just give us what we want since it’s an area of ‘common ground.'”

What GOP leaders don’t seem to understand — or at least choose to be confused about — is that giving one side everything it wants, and demanding no concessions at all from that side, is in no way similar to “finding the places where your agenda overlaps with that of the other party, locking arms, and getting it done.”