During the debt-ceiling negotiations, the Obama administration offered the Republicans two concessions that Democrats really didn’t like: A cut to Social Security, through a mechanism known as “chained-CPI,” and a lift in Medicare’s eligibility age. The administration was expected to make both concessions part of the debt-reduction package it plans to announce next week. Now, it looks as if neither item will appear in the final plan. And the reason why is best explained by comparing two New York special elections that went very, very differently for the Democrats.


President Obama arrives to an enthusiastic reception as he visits the University of Richmond to speak about the American Jobs Act, on September, 09, 2011 in Richmond, VA. (Photo by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post) (Bill O'Leary/WASHINGTON POST)

On Sept. 14, 2011, Republican Bob Turner was elected to fill the House seat vacated by Democrat Anthony Weiner. He wasn’t supposed to win that election. In fact, he wasn’t supposed to come particularly close. But Democrats had long ago lost whatever clarity of message the Ryan budget had handed them, and the Obama administration’s endless negotiating during the debt deal, far from making them appear the only reasonable adults in the room, had simply underscored the perception that the president was unable to lead Washington at a moment that desperately called for strong leadership.

Turner ran against Obama’s economic record, and his record on Israel. But he was concerned enough about attacks on his position on Medicare to release this robocall in which former-New York mayor Ed Koch swore up and down that Turner would never touch the program:

The Obama administration got to test its postpartisan approach and in its first real electoral test, it failed. Republicans refused to cut the deal, voters weren’t interested in parsing reports about which backroom players offered what concessions, and the impression of Obama as a weakened leader without a clear plan for dealing with the economic crisis solidified. By contrast, the more traditional Democratic strategy -- protect popular government programs, oppose further tax cuts for the wealthy -- had worked a few months earlier, and was still clearly scaring Republican candidates.

The flaw in the White House’s plan, as it turned out, was that they were letting the Republicans have it both ways. The White House was joining with them in proposing unpopular entitlement cuts and talking about deficits rather than jobs, but they weren’t getting the grand compromise that they needed to show voters that compromising was an effective form of presidential leadership.

The first sign the White House was realizing this was when they proposed paying for their jobs plan by taxing the rich. That was a clear nonstarter in Congress -- even among some of the Democrats -- and an unusual foray into policy-as-messaging for a White House that tended to prefer presenting policy proposals that were already a compromise.

Next week, we’ll see if that was simply a temporary divergence from the One True Path or a whole new strategy. If the White House emerges with a plan that is firmly in the middle and makes it impossible to run against Republican ideas in 2012, then we’ll know they’re not interested in returning to the post-Ryan strategy, and they still think being the adults in the room will win them the election. If they emerge with a plan that cuts the deficit in ways that the American people like and the Republicans can’t accept, we’ll know they have chosen to change direction sharply.

In that world, Republicans will be left with two choices: either give the Democrats a deal on the deficit and jobs -- and make no mistake, the White House would still jump at the chance to raise the Medicare eligibility age in return for a grand bargain -- or duke it out in the election. That’s the funny thing about ceasing to compromise in public. It can make it more likely that you actually get a compromise in private.