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Boehner tries to call a mulligan

House Speaker John Boehner is trying to call a mulligan.

In 2011, not long after an election in which Democrats were utterly routed, Erskine Bowles testified before the debt supercommittee. "I tried to think...if it was possible for you all to get to the $3.9 trillion deficit reduction," he said. "Given where your positions are today, I think it is. I think you can get this done."

Bowles went on to outline what came to be known as the "Bowles plan." Calling it a plan, though, is probably a bit generous: It was mostly an exercise in taking the Republican position and the Democratic position and dividing by two.

Take health care cuts: "You are somewhere between $500 billion and $750 billion of additional health care cuts," Bowles said. "I assumed that we could get to $600 billion." 

Or discretionary cuts: "You all are between $250 billion and $400 billion of additional cuts on discretionary. So I assumed that we could reach a compromise of an additional $300 billion on discretionary spending cuts."

Or tax increases: "I took the number that the speaker of the House, I had read, had actually agreed to" -- he's referring here to the leaked outlines of the Obama-Boehner talks -- "and I was able to generate $800 billion."

And so on. That's the plan Boehner offered the White House on Monday. It's progress. If you ignore the first nine paragraphs in his letter to President Obama -- nine paragraphs in which he vents about the White House and rehashes the virtues of the Ryan budget -- it's a far more centrist proposal than anything Boehner has offered in public before now. But it's essentially identical to what he offered in his talks with Obama, and to what Bowles offered Republicans during the supercommittee talks. Which is understandable. Those deals must be looking pretty good to Boehner about now.

There were many who advised Republicans to take those deals in 2011. Democrats were back on their heels, and they were offering up more than most observers had believed possible. At the New York Times, David Brooks called it "an astonishing concession" and said that "If the Republican Party were a normal party, it would take advantage of this amazing moment."

It didn't. It bet instead that it could get a better deal in 2013, when Obama, whose popularity was then in the high-30s, would be replaced by a Republican president. The bet failed.

Boehner opens his latest letter by reminding the president that 2012 was "a status quo election in which both you and the Republican majority in the House were re-elected." That's technically true and in every other way incorrect. The fact is that 2012 was a Democratic rout, in which Democrats got more votes than Republicans at the presidential, Senate and House levels. Boehner remains speaker because redistricting saved his majority. Nothing more. 

That means Republicans are in a far weaker position than they were in 2011. And Boehner knows it. His newest offer is proof. In 2011, it was Obama chasing after Boehner with compromise proposals. In 2012, it's the reverse.

It is not surprising that Boehner wishes he could go back in time and accept the president's offer from 2011, or fight for the compromise Bowles outlined before the supercommittee. Those are, from his vantage point today, quite good deals. But elections have consequences, and the consequence of this election is that those offers are no longer on the table.

Instead, we are likely to see a slow process of Bowles-style, split-the-difference compromise. Boehner is now at $800 billion in revenues, and the White House is at $1.6 trillion. If the two sides end at $1.2 trillion, that would be about what most in Washington are expecting. Similarly, Boehner is at $900 billion in mandatory spending cuts, and Obama is at $600 billion. if the two sides end at $750 billion, that wouldn't be such a surprise. 

One sticking point will be how to get those revenues. Obama has said he won't sign any proposal that leaves tax rates where they are today. Boehner says Republicans "won't agree to" any proposal that raises tax rates. Obama has made clear that he considers the 2011 cuts from the Budget Control Act as part of the deal, while Boehner is refusing to count them toward the total.

It's too early to say how those questions will be resolved. But they won't be resolved by returning to the Bowles framework from 2011. Unfortunately for the Republicans, there are no mulligans in politics.



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