Once upon a time, all we could talk about were the very real problems with the economy. Congressional Republicans demanded spending cuts. They wanted entitlement cuts. They demanded President Obama get serious about addressing the nation’s crippling debt. They even nominated as their vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), he of the draconian Path to Prosperity. Not anymore.

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) holds up his Path for Prosperity. (Carolyn Kaster/AP) Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) holds up his Path for Prosperity. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Now, all we talk about are scandals. There’s the real one involving the disturbing phone records sweep of the Associated Press by the Justice Department. The other real one involving the IRS holding conservative groups up to extra scrutiny for tax-exemption applications. And the one masquerading as a real scandal involving the Benghazi talking points. There are calls for resignations and even impeachment.

Today’s papers hold a clue to why the GOP is MIA on any discussion of the economy and deficits. A report from the independent Congressional Budget Office released yesterday estimates that the budget deficit “will shrink this year to $642 billion . . . the smallest shortfall since 2008.” The deficits will continue to shrink through 2015.

CBO’s estimate of the deficit for this year is about $200 billion below the estimate that it produced in February 2013, mostly as a result of higher-than-expected revenues and an increase in payments to the Treasury by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. For the 2014–2023 period, CBO now projects a cumulative deficit that is $618 billion less than it projected in February.

This is huge news. Republicans should be crowing about this. The spending cuts from 2011 and the sequester, plus the revenue generated by the expiration of the Bush tax cuts for those earning more than $400,000 annually, are part of this rosier picture. The downside to all this is that it will strip away the urgency to get something done on entitlements through some sort of grand bargain.

My colleague Greg Sargent isn’t keen on a grand bargain and believes the real and faux scandals gripping the capital will force the president to abandon grand thoughts on a grand bargain in an effort to keep his base with him in a time of crisis. I get that, but this game can’t last forever.

I find the argument made by John Harwood of the New York Times more compelling. While he acknowledges that the improved fiscal outlook has diminished desires for a grand bargain to deal with Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare, Harwood notes that there are Republicans who strongly believe they should strike a deal sooner rather than later. Of course, the reason why boils down to politics.

Even if Republicans take control of Congress and the White House in the next two elections — allowing them to put in place a budget plan without major compromises — they would then shoulder the political responsibility for the inevitable pain that comes from curbing those huge and popular programs. Much as Republicans may dislike Mr. Obama and his policies, a Democratic president can provide them a measure of political cover.

But Republicans don’t want to talk about this. They’d rather race to the microphones on the increasingly rare occasion they’re in Washington to thunder about [fill in the blank] scandal and call for [offending party’s name goes here] to be held accountable for [offending party’s offense goes here].

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