President Obama, in perhaps not the most presidential of metaphors, compared himself to a jilted bride — a bride, indeed, who had spent the day waiting by the phone. “I’ve been left at the altar now a couple of times,” he complained Friday after House Speaker John Boehner walked out on their debt reduction talks.
For his part, the speaker played the role of put-upon bridegroom who finds the bride’s family demanding a last-minute change in the prenuptial agreement. “The White House moved the goal post,” Boehner said, asserting that having agreed on a tax number, the White House demanded $400 billion more after its caucus revolted.
It doesn’t make much sense to ask whether this marriage can be saved — it probably won’t ever be consummated. As every divorce lawyer knows, there is always fault to go around. But not necessarily equal fault. The immediate problem of raising the debt ceiling and averting fiscal Armageddon will, I am reasonably confident, be resolved. But the reasons behind the Obama-Boehner breakup illustrate the intractable difficulties of striking a larger bargain.
Yes, Obama tried to change the terms at the last minute, when his deal looked embarrassingly sickly compared with that struck by the Gang of Six. But Boehner, in fact, had turned up with his own set of eleventh-hour demands, including suggesting that the fail-safe trigger, to be pulled if the parties couldn’t agree on the final elements of debt reduction, should include eliminating the individual mandate to purchase health insurance.
This arrangement would have given Republicans every incentive not to reach a final deal: Oh, no, if we don’t agree, then we’ll get to torpedo health-care reform. Yippee! It was far more laughable than Obama’s lunge for an extra $400 billion — especially since, according to White House officials, the president had made clear he had other potential cuts up his sleeve if the extra tax revenue wouldn’t fly. He was waiting to deal.
In the end, as it was in the beginning, Boehner was the guy with the commitment problem. As much as he may have wanted to make things work, he has a commitment problem because he cannot get enough of his caucus to commit to tax increase. So Boehner bolted — and, as bolters often do, offered the usual unconvincing set of excuses for behaving badly. In a letter to his caucus, the runaway speaker explained he had to quit the talks because “it became evident that the White House is simply not serious about ending the spending binge.”
This is demonstrably untrue. The White House had agreed to cut discretionary spending by more than $1 trillion over the next decade, plus $200 billion in cuts in mandatory spending programs outside the health-care context. On health-care spending, the White House agreed to $360 billion in cuts, and the possibilities laid out included raising the eligibility age for Medicare from 65 to 67 and additional means-testing of benefits. It agreed to changing the inflation index in a way that would have reduced benefits for seniors. In term of spending cuts, the two sides were, at most, $59 billion apart — a pittance in context and when spread over 10 years.
It make you wonder: What, exactly, short of endorsing Paul Ryan’s budget plan, would Boehner consider seriousness on the part of a Democratic president?
Indeed, the bipartisan Gang of Six plan calls for $800 billion more in new tax revenue than the White House was seeking, even after Obama upped the ante.
When the Simpson-Bowles debt reduction plan first came out, Democrats howled at the supposed unfairness of it all. Now, especially compared with the president’s would-be deal, it’s looking pretty good. Republicans may someday have the same reaction to the White House offer they felt compelled to spurn.