Greg Sargent tries to explain White House thinking on their decision to embrace entitlement cuts in next week's budget proposal:
They believe a Grand Bargain is good for Democrats in general, because it essentially would lock in a medium-term agreement over core disputes — about the safety net and about the size of government, and who should pay for it — that have produced a debilitating stalemate in Washington.
Yes, Republicans would continue railing about government spending, the thinking goes, but no one would listen, since they would have already endorsed a deal stabilizing the deficit. This would deprive Republicans of the ability to focus attention on one of their core targets — Big Government — as a way to avoid grappling with other issues, such as jobs and long-term middle class economic security, immigration, guns, and perhaps even climate change. Reaching a deal on the deficit will force Republicans to confront those problems more directly and to choose between real cooperation on them or continue to calcify as a hidebound, reactionary party incapable of addressing major challenges facing the country.
Yeah, maybe. Of course, that's also a pretty good reason for Republicans to refuse to cut a deal. Why bother if all it does is pave the way for Obama to spend lots of time on wedge issues that are good for Democrats and bad for them?
The truth is that, for the most part, the deficit isn't a real issue for Republicans. They don't want to raise taxes; they don't want to cut defense spending; they don't want to cut entitlement spending on seniors (the core of their base); and cutting future entitlements doesn't affect the deficit any time soon. The only thing left is cutting spending on the poor, and although Republicans think that's a fine idea, even they can't cut social welfare spending enough to have a serious impact on the deficit.
So it's mostly a charade. And it's a good one! One of the very best, in fact. Cutting the deficit polls well, it lends itself nicely to demagoguery, and it's an all-purpose excuse to oppose any spending proposals they don't like. So why on earth would you cut a deal to take it off the table? That would be crazy. And if they're forced to swallow a tax increase as well, that makes it even crazier. There's literally no benefit at all in this for Republicans.
So they won't do it. Obama's real hope—since I assume he's not an idiot and knows all this perfectly well—is that Republicans will indeed refuse to make a deal, and, as Sargent suggests, this could turn the public against them in the 2014 midterms. I suppose that's possible, depending on how well he plays his hand. It's certainly more possible than assuming that Republicans will voluntarily commit electoral suicide by agreeing to a deal.