Another Reason Obama Should Avoid Self-Negotiation

Earlier today I noted Ezra Klein’s astute observation that Barack Obama has decided not to “negotiate with himself” in the fiscal talks by initially offering anything other than the preferred formula he’d pursue if Republicans were suddenly lifted up in the Rapture or driven into madness by all the soul-struggling they’re pretending to do.

But there’s another reason other than gamesmanship why Obama should avoid moving in the direction of the GOP until they’ve moved first: Republicans desperately want Democrats to throw them into the briar patch of Medicare cuts that they spent much of the last four years pretending to deplore. Jonathan Chait sums up their quandry in a manner than his powers of logic and sarcasm best equip him to do:

The Republican positioning on Medicare has set the tone for the current budget impasse. Obama is asking for $1.6 trillion in higher tax revenue. Republicans are demanding more spending cuts, but they won’t say how much they want, let alone what specifically they will cut. The current party thinking on Medicare, sanctified by Romney and Ryan, has defined itself as matching or even outspending Obama on Medicare for anybody aged 55 and up. That would lock out any budget savings at all for the next decade, and make any savings roll in extremely slowly afterward.

Republicans could present a plan like that in negotiations — deep Medicare cuts that don’t start to take effect until 2022. But, since the two sides have already cut discretionary spending to the bone, that would necessarily require that any deal necessarily have far more tax hikes than spending cuts over the next decade. But Republicans don’t want that, either. It’s not clear that their goals can be expressed at all, at least not in arithmetically coherent form.

Hence their current demand that Obama formulate a proposed slate of entitlement spending cuts on their behalf. Right now Republicans seem to need Obama to conduct both sides of the negotiation.

If Obama refuses to put Medicare cuts “on the table,” then Republicans will either have to abandon the Mediscare tactics that are so important to their ability to hang onto their voting base of white seniors, or propose insane cuts elsewhere, or just give in, or just obstruct any deal and let the Bush tax cuts expire (quickly followed by a middle-class tax cut they dare not oppose) along with defense cuts that will freak out their militarist wing. They are indeed deep in a trap of their own design.

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.