February 25, 2013
House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)
House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

The big question at this point, especially among liberal observers, seems to be why Republicans don’t simply accept “victory” in the sequester/budget negotiations (well, the would-be negotiations; it’s not clear there are any actual negotiations at this point). It’s a good question, especially since budget negotiations — unlike, say, decisions on going to war or over abortion — should be quite easy to compromise.

And yet, for the umpteenth time, here we are approaching yet another budget deadline.

I have two possible answers. One is that it’s just relatively ordinary brinkmanship. Once a deadline is set, both sides will push their position as hard as they can up to the last minute, and then cut their best deal. There’s some evidence suggesting that’s what is happening; after all, we haven’t yet had a government shutdown or a real debt limit breach. Yes, sequestration almost certainly will happen this week, but that’s now seen as a soft deadline, with a must-pass appropriations deadline in only a few weeks giving everyone an opportunity to erase anything they want.

On the other hand, plenty of reporting suggests that Republicans really have been confused in their bargaining approach. If so, what’s almost certainly the case is that bargaining is difficult because Republicans still, after two-plus years of this, haven’t really faced up to the need to rank their priorities. Is it deficit reduction they want? Low tax rates? Less spending in general? Less spending on specific programs? By all accounts, they really could get one or two of those goals if they were willing to trade relatively lower-ranked preferences.

What really appears to be the problem is that this isn’t a breakdown of negotiations within the GOP, in which one group wants low taxes but another prefers smaller deficits and yet another really just cares about size-of-government. While it’s possible to find one or more Republican politician who fits that story, the more likely explanation is that it’s the mainstream consensus GOP position itself that continues to be internally conflicted. In particular, most Republicans certainly seem to be unaware that their tax and deficit positions are in conflict with each other.

You’ll note lots of “appears” and “seems” in that assessment. It’s very possible that what we’re seeing on the surface is just rhetoric and posturing; that would be quite understandable, and not particularly harmful as long as it doesn’t get in the way of cutting deals. But we don’t know: It’s also just as possible that the convoluted GOP position is their actual position, with all its inherent conflicts, and that’s what’s making compromise so difficult.