“There’s no point in dying on a small cross.”
A favorite saying of Vice President Biden, this phrase became, for a time, the motto of the two grown-ups in chief at the debt-ceiling talks: President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner.
Its macabre imagery helps explain the impetus, political and substantive, behind both men’s attraction to the grand bargain. And it illustrates the forces that made them, however fleetingly, Washington’s oddest couple: two shaky incumbents brought together not only by common sense but by common interests in keeping their jobs.
Achieving a grand bargain is alluring to the president because his first term has been too much occupied by cleanup time, every preschooler’s least favorite part of the day. He inherited a heap of messes and spent the bulk of his time on the Sisyphean task of repairing the damage.
The fun part of any presidency is making the art project: passing the legacy initiatives. And it’s hard to make great art if you can’t afford supplies. To be sure, Obama can count health-care legislation and financial reform among his achievements. But they are at risk in a subsequent Republican presidency, and in any event, the far greater share of presidential first-term energy has been devoted to digging out.
To what end? If Obama loses, President Romney, as the White House envisions its GOP opposition, reaps the benefit of a recovering economy and the Obama administration’s cleanup efforts.
If Obama wins, having managed only to kick the twin cans of the debt ceiling and the fiscal situation down the road, his second term could be as grim as the first.
There would be no money, and therefore no leeway, for second-term Obama to implement the kinds of transformative changes he imagines in infrastructure, education and research. There would be little time or energy to take on other major initiatives, such as immigration reform. He would be condemned to four years of chipping away at the debt.
Then there is the politics of the situation, which tacitly align Obama’s interests with Boehner’s — and against those of House Democrats. The president, demonstrating openness to entitlement cuts, repositions himself toward the center, thereby attracting independent and moderate voters who have become disillusioned since 2008.
There is, to be sure, a risk to Obama of further alienating his liberal base and further enraging seniors, who already deserted Democrats in droves in 2010. There is not an obvious constituency cheering for tax increases or pleading for painful cuts. Still, the potential political benefit of the grand bargain outweighs the potential cost with seniors. Unemployment is likely to remain unacceptably high by Election Day. A big debt deal would at least give the president an argument that he has put the budget on the right track.
However, it would simultaneously undercut House Democrats’ desire to run against end-Medicare-as-we-know-it Republicans. What helps the president hurts House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Not that Obama wouldn’t have preferred the grand bargain, but Boehner’s pullout allows the president to reap the benefit of having been willing to tackle entitlements and preserves Pelosi’s electoral argument. The president gets the benefit of being willing to go for the big cross without the immediate political pain of being there. Meanwhile, he can cast Republicans as the ideological, inflexible party.
And accurately so. Boehner is a dealmaker at heart, and was, as far as I can tell, sincere in his desire to reach one with the White House. Smart, too: The deal under discussion would have produced hundreds of billions of dollars less in new tax revenue than what two conservative Republican senators agreed to as part of the Simpson-Bowles plan.
Still, it was entirely unsurprising that Boehner would back away at the first sign of trouble. The speaker was willing, but his caucus is crazy. Too many of them are unalterably opposed to raising the debt ceiling; even more balk at any tax increase of any size. Meanwhile, he’s got House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the wings, eager to seize the speakership. To understand Cantor, think Macbeth with all the vaulting ambition and none of the accompanying guilt.
Two leaders were willing, for differing reasons, to take a risk. It was predictable that their bid for a grand bargain would collapse. That does not make it any less depressing.