At a presser today, President Obama was peppered with questions from reporters who demanded to know if there is anything he can do to dislodge Republicans from their no-compromise stance. One suggested locking Republicans in a room until a deal is reached. Obama responded that he is “not a dictator.”
This is already being met with skepticism (see Ron Fournier, a determined advocate for the “GOP is uncompromising but the president must lead” point of view).
Let’s put aside the question of whether there is more that Obama could do to lead the GOP out of its intransigence. It’s becoming apparent that many simply don’t appreciate the true nature of the actual GOP position in this debate. So here’s a thought experiment designed to drive it home.
Imagine that Mitt Romney had been elected president last November with 51 percent of the vote. Obama’s platform — a mix of tax hikes and spending cuts, including cuts to entitlements — was soundly rejected, ending his presidency. Instead, voters chose Romney’s vision — we must get our fiscal problems under control only with deep spending cuts.
In that context, imagine if the lead article of the New York Times this morning had said this (warning: this is not a real article):
Reid halts talks on cuts, and Democrats cheer
WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has come around to the idea that the best negotiations are no negotiations.
As the president and Congressional Republicans have tried to force Mr. Reid back to the table for talks to head off the automatic sequestration set to take effect on Friday, Mr. Reid has instead dug in deeper, refusing to even discuss any more spending cuts and insisting in his typical colorful language that it was time for the House to produce a measure aimed at averting the crisis.
“The spending cut issue is now closed,” Mr. Reid said Thursday, before the Senate left town for the weekend. Mr. Reid argued that Democrats had already agreed to $1.5 trillion in spending cuts in 2011, and that the dispute with Republicans amounted to a question of “how much more money do we want to steal from government programs the American people rely on.”
“I’m for no more,” Reid said.
Senate Democrats could not be more pleased with their leader for drawing a line against any more spending cuts, and for insisting that our remaining fiscal problems be resolved only with new tax hikes. “Friday will be an important day that shows we’re finally willing to stand and fight for liberal principles,” said Senator Jeff Merkley, a leading liberal. “That will be a big victory.”
This is, of course, a tweaked version of the article that actually did lead the New York Times today, which reported that John Boehner is leaving town without budging from his no-new-revenues stance, to the “cheers” of House Republicans. I’ve simply substituted Reid and Democrats for Boehner and Republicans, and subbed in a fictional position for Democrats — no more spending cuts of any kind, ever; we must only resolve our fiscal problems through tax hikes. This is a rough approximation (in reverse) of the current GOP stance.
I don’t really like playing the “imagine if Dems had done this” game, but I don’t know how else to dramatize this clearly. So try to imagine the widespread press mockery that would be directed at Democrats in this scenario. Try to imagine centrist pundits blaming President Romney for failing to “lead” Democrats out of their position that we must only resolve our problems with tax hikes — and not a penny more in spending cuts. None of this would happen, because Democrats would never adopt this stance.
Now, some folks will object: Republicans agreed to tax hikes already! Yes, but as noted in my fake New York Times article, Dems could plausibly make a similar argument about cuts. Others will note that the sequester is only spending cuts, with no new revenues. True, but the sequester was intended as a mechanism to force a fiscal agreement; Dems have always insisted that the deficit must be reduced through a mix of tax hikes and spending cuts.
The GOP position is explicitly that there is nothing Democrats can offer that will get them to agree to new revenues. Nothing. Therefore, any offer from Dems — no matter how much in serious spending cuts it contains — is automatically a nonstarter for Republicans if it closes any tax loopholes to generate new revenue. There is no scenario under which Republicans can be induced to compromise — if we take Republicans themselves at their word. The only option for avoiding the sequester is for Democrats to propose only cuts to replace it — cuts that Republicans themselves won’t even propose. No “leadership” can avert the sequester. Only giving Republicans 100% of what they want can.
Folks wouldn’t accept my fictional scenario for a second. But the mirror image of that scenario is what’s happening right now.