YOU MIGHT EXPECT political winners to be more ready than losers to compromise. Magnanimity in victory, and all that. It often works the other way, though. Victors misread their triumph and overplay their hands.
Republicans, who failed to retake the White House and lost ground in the Senate, are beginning to accept that they will have to bend on a core principle in the fiscal talks now underway. Federal revenue will have to increase, substantially, with the wealthy taking the biggest hit.
Democrats, meanwhile, are sounding more and more maximalist in resisting spending cuts. Many insist that Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and education — pretty much everything except the Pentagon — are untouchable. Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), who had been one of the more reasonable Democratic leaders, said Tuesday that, while he favors reform of entitlement programs, it shouldn’t be part of the negotiations on the fiscal cliff. The Post’s Greg Sargent reported that union leaders and other liberals came away from a White House meeting encouraged that administration officials agree.
“They expect taxes to go up on the wealthy and to protect Medicare and Medicaid benefits,” one attendee said. “They feel confident that they don’t have to compromise.”
Don’t have to compromise?
Elections do have consequences, and Mr. Obama ran on a clear platform of increasing taxes on the wealthy. But he was clear on something else, too: Deficit reduction must be “balanced,” including spending cuts as well as tax increases. Since 60 percent of the federal budget goes to entitlement programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, there’s no way to achieve balance without slowing the rate of increase of those programs.
This could be accomplished in a progressive manner, shielding the poorest beneficiaries from cuts. But that seems less likely to be achieved if progressives boycott serious negotiations by pretending that Social Security and Medicare are sustainable with no reform at all.
Mr. Obama has understood this since at least 2009, when he told The Post’s editorial board that he would tackle entitlement reform.
“What we have done is kicked this can down the road. We are now at the end of the road and are not in a position to kick it any further,” he said then. “We have to signal seriousness in this by making sure some of the hard decisions are made under my watch, not someone else’s.”
Four years later, has the moment arrived? Since his reelection, Mr. Obama has fueled a campaign-style effort to pressure Republicans to give ground on taxes. That’s fine, but it won’t be enough. At some point, he has to prepare the American people — and his own supporters most of all — for the “hard decisions” required to put the country on a sound financial footing. That means spending cuts, it means entitlement reform, it means compromise, it means a balanced solution that will please neither House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) nor Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). Only one person is in a position to make it happen.