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I have a theory about what may transpire over the next few weeks with respect to the federal budget. Since I haven’t seen anyone else write it, I figured I’d take a stab at it.

As usual, the media is focused on the daily political blood and gore that sells newspapers. I suppose it is true that an individual tree – with its gnarled roots and rough bark – is always more interesting to look at than the whole forest – a bland sea of green.

There is a consensus in Washington that the time is now for a bipartisan deal on the current budget and long-term deficits. Both parties see the basic elements of a deal, and see doing it now, prior to the announcement of Republican presidential candidates this spring, as being advantageous.

For President Obama, a deal allows him to say he did what he always said he would do – pull together a broad-based coalition to take on the big issues of the day, however unpleasant. Doing it now, however, is imperative for him. A deal will unleash fury within his base, and he will need a year-and-a-half to re-energize it before 2012.

For John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, and other Republican leaders, a deal now has a double-effect: 1) It shows that Republicans are indeed willing to work with Democrats when they see that its reasonable to do so 2) It tees up the 2012 presidential race by creating a narrative that they’ve got the President on the ropes and that this deal, while important, doesn’t go nearly far enough. To do what is really necessary, they will assert, will require a Republican in the White House.

All know somehow that the deal must happen immediately, before any Republican presidential hopefuls announce candidacies. Once this happens, the President will be forced to weigh his actions in the context of potential opponents, and Republicans in Congress will be divided on who they are supporting and what these candidates want out of Congress to help their campaigns (compromise with a Democratic President likely not being high on the list).

The behavior of everyone here in recent weeks, I think, supports this view.

  1. If President Obama didn’t actually want a deal, but wanted instead to only be seen having tried, he would have included in his budget a big bold “Obama Plan” for reigning in entitlement spending as many have chided him for failing to do. But, he knows this was a trap. Had he done so, there would have been two immediate effects: 1) His base would have been in revolt. 2) Republicans would have said, no matter what the plan was, that it didn’t go far enough and, thus, they couldn’t support it. The result would have been a loss of support on the left and a lack of support on the right. Having been seen trying, the President could then have reverted back to a more conventional Democratic budget, similar to the one he did put out, but with a significantly weaker hand. Instead, by avoiding the question, Obama led everyone to beg the question on entitlements and has given the Senate the opportunity to take credit for providing the answer. As Harry Truman once said, anything is possible when you’re not preoccupied with who gets the credit. (As an aside, the President’s weighing in on the Wisconsin budget crisis lends more evidence to the fact that he is preparing to cut a deal. Generating headlines in the days before a major compromise about how he is getting the backs of labor and rallying midwest progressives doesn’t hurt his cause among the faithful.)
  2. If John Boehner and Mitch McConnell didn’t actually want a deal, they would have tried to keep a tight reign on their caucus, as they did over the past two years, in order to pass a Republican budget that was at least somewhat attractive to deficit hawk Democrats in the Senate. Doing so would have put pressure on the President to veto a reasonable sounding budget that had support both in the House, but also in the Senate. Instead, however, John Boehner opened the floodgates, allowing his House to pass a far-right budget that even cuts George H.W. Bush’s coveted National Corporation for Community Service and left Bob Gates pleading for funds to complete post-conflict reconstruction efforts in Iraq, lest we repeat our mistakes from the 1980s in Afghanistan (see last 5 minutes of Charlie Wilson’s War). Taking this latter approach had 3 outcomes for Boehner and McConnell: 1) It enabled John Boehner to be seen as living up to the budget-cutting mandate placed upon the Congress by the November Elections 2) It provided a huge freshmen class (87 total) of legislators with little experience significant practice in writing bills and working through Parliamentary procedure 3) It guaranteed a Presidential veto and tee’d up a bipartisan effort in the Senate that would split the difference between the House Budget and the President’s…something Boehner probably prefers in his heart-of-hearts.

This week the Congress is in recess. Legislators’ goal while they’re home will be to trump the virtues of their respective budget (President’s version or House version), and on denigrating the others’ (Republicans will say the President’s plan fails to cut enough spending and kicks the entitlement can down the road; Democrats will say far-right Republicans have taken a hatchet to the budget and, with little foresight or strategy, have cut things that are vitally important and have little to do with long-term deficits).

All the while Senators will begin to emerge from the shadows, working to appear as elder statesmen coming to save the republic from the brink and forge a high-minded compromise. This process was initiated Sunday by Lindsey Graham and Dick Durbin on Meet the Press and will increase throughout the week. We will see more of names like Mark Warner, Saxby Chambliss, Judd Gregg, etc..

Then, in the first part of March, for a fleeting moment, everyone might just jump in the boat at the same time. A compromise that simplifies the tax code while expanding revenues, shores up social security by perhaps phasing in an increased retirement age, and makes some adjustments to Medicare and Medicaid might just pass the Senate and earn begrudging support from the House and the President. In return, the drastic cuts House Republicans proposed to education, border security, and foreign aid for FY 2011 and 2012 will be removed. The President will present himself as coming reluctantly to the deal, as a reasonable compromiser still disappointed that so little is being done for the poor. Republicans, likewise, will appear reluctant, taking every possible chance to say the deal doesn’t go far enough, but since a Democrat is in the White House, what choice do they have? To work, it will have to happen quickly, almost before everyone realizes what is happening. If left in the light of day too long, the zealous will start paddling their own J-Strokes, the boat will start going in circles, and everyone will end up wet.

The day afterwards, Republicans will begin saying that now the real work begins. Just think what could have been accomplished if we had the White House too, they will suggest. Democrats will express disappointment with the President and pressure him to return to his progressive base, fighting for advances in education and infrastructure and unleashing fury against the concentration of wealth among the rich at the expense of the poor and middle class. Eagerly, he will take up this call. A few weeks later, Republican presidential hopefuls will begin to announce, and for the next year-and-a-half every Congressional vote will become fodder for 2012 campaign ads. Both parties will feel good about the terms of this debate and will be eager to engage in the long war.

Along the way reporters will have dramatized each battle and written human-interest pieces on the heroes and the villains. But nobody will have taken the time to tell the whole story of how the successful compromise came to be. And, when the hour for jumping together comes around again sometime downstream, we will look at the boat as if for the first time.

Or, I could just be wrong.

Our dear friend Alex (and Jon’s pledge son and usher in our wedding) has been really making a name for himself as a big leader in the Obama campaign and now the administration.  This is not the first article about him, but it is a good  one.  We’re proud of you, Alex!

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