File this under "Jonathan Chait is right."
My column this weekend is about the almost comically poor lines of communication between the White House and the Hill. The opening anecdote was drawn from a background briefing I attended with a respected Republican legislator who thought it would be a gamechanger for President Obama to say he'd be open to chained CPI — a policy that cuts Social Security benefits — as part of a budget deal.
The only problem? Obama has said he's open to chained CPI as part of a budget deal. And this isn't one of those times where the admission was in private, and we're going off of news reports. It's right there on his Web site. It's literally in bold type. But key GOP legislators have no idea Obama's made that concession.
The question my column left open was whether improving the lines of communication would actually change anything. Chait's view is no, it wouldn't. He begins by quoting Upton Sinclair's famous line: "It is impossible to make a man understand something if his livelihood depends on not understanding it." Chait continues:
If Obama could get hold of Klein’s mystery legislator and inform him of his budget offer, it almost certainly wouldn’t make a difference. He would come up with something – the cuts aren’t real, or the taxes are awful, or they can’t trust Obama to carry them out, or something.
What happened next on Twitter proved Chait's point in every particular.
Mike Murphy is one of the top political consultants in the Republican Party. He's been a top strategist for Mitt Romney, John McCain, Jeb Bush, Arnold Schwarzenegger and many other Republicans. He's also, as his client list would suggest, from the party's more pragmatic, even moderate, wing. Over the past few years, as he's transitioned into doing more punditry, he's emerged as an invaluable guide to what reasonable Republicans think of the rightward lurch in the GOP.
On Feb. 13, Murphy wrote in Time that "six magic words can unlock the door to the votes inside the Republican fortress: Some beneficiaries pay more and chained CPI, budgetary code for slightly lowering benefit increases over time." The only problem? Obama has said all these words, as John Harwood of the New York Times quickly pointed out:
Murphy responded by suggesting that sure, Obama has called for more means-testing in Medicare, but he's not put chained CPI — CCPI, if you're hamstrung by Twitter's 140-character limit — on the board:
Obama never refused chained CPI as part of a cliff deal. In fact, he did the opposite: He endorsed it as part of a cliff deal, and he's kept endorsing it, as his sequestration plan clearly says, since the cliff deal fell apart. This was quickly pointed out to Murphy on Twitter, at which point, he promptly proved Chait's thesis correct:
Then Murphy retweeted this:
So let's back up. Murphy's initial view was that to unlock GOP votes for a budget deal, Obama just needed to endorse chained CPI and more means-testing in Medicare. Then it was pointed out that Obama has endorsed means-testing in Medicare, so Murphy wondered why he didn't endorse chained CPI as part of a deal. Then it was pointed out that Obama did endorse chained CPI, at which point Murphy called chained CPI "a gimmick," and said Obama had to endorse raising the Medicare age, drop his demands for more revenue as part of a deal and earn back the GOP's trust.
Recall what Chait said would happen if the Republican legislator in my column was forced to react to the fact that Obama has endorsed chained CPI: "He would come up with something – the cuts aren’t real, or the taxes are awful, or they can’t trust Obama to carry them out, or something." Check, check, and check.
Which is all to say that there's no deal here. A few tweets later, Murphy gave his bottom-line view, which is that if Obama wants a deal, he needs to drop all of his demands and just agree to what the GOP wants to do:
Technically, Obama did move first on spending. Over the course of 2011, Obama signed into law a set of bills that cut about $1.8 trillion from discretionary spending, and that included no tax increases at all. One of those bills, the Budget Control Act, also gave us the sequester, so you could argue they included closer to $3 trillion in spending cuts — all, again, without a single tax increase. It didn't seem to build much trust.
He's also, in this deal, "moved first" on spending. So far, the Republicans have not proposed any further tax increases, but Obama has proposed quite a few spending cuts, including means-testing in Medicare and chained-CPI.
The bottom line on American budgetary politics right now is that Republicans won't agree to further tax increases and so there's no deal to be had. This is not a controversial perspective in D.C.: It's what Hill Republicans have told me, it's what the White House has told me, it what Hill Democrats have told me. The various camps disagree on whether Republicans are right to refuse a deal that includes further tax increases, but they all agree that that's the key fact holding up a compromise to replace the sequester.
But it's unpopular for Republicans to simply say they won't agree to any compromise and there's no deal to be had — particularly since taxing the wealthy is more popular than cutting entitlements, and so their position is less popular than Obama's. That's made it important for Republicans to prove that it's the president who is somehow holding up a deal.
This had led to a lot of Republicans fanning out to explain what the president should be offering if he was serious about making a deal. Then, when it turns out that the president did offer those items, there's more furious hand-waving about how no, actually, this is what the president needs to offer to make a deal. Then, when it turns out he's offered most of that, too, the hand-waving stops and the truth comes out: Republicans won't make a deal that includes further taxes, they just want to get the White House to implement their agenda in return for nothing. Luckily for them, most of the time, the conversation doesn't get that far, and the initial comments that the president needs to "get serious" on entitlements is met with sage nods.
I don't mean to pick on Murphy, who, as I said, is an important guide to contemporary Republican politics and a force for good in his party. But his series of missives on the subject today offered an unusually clear view of where the GOP actually is in the budget debate, and why there was really no alternative to the sequester. There's no deal even if Obama agrees to major Republican demands on entitlements. There's no deal because Republicans don't want to make a deal that includes taxes, no matter what they get in return for it.
The interesting question is whether the possibility of a government shutdown, a debt-ceiling breach or simply the pressure of the sequester's cuts will, in the coming months, break one side or the other. But as long as the GOP's position is they won't compromise, there's not going to be a compromise.