THE SPATE of media reports recounting the sad tale of last summer’s negotiations on the federal debt, culminating in Matt Bai’s detailed account in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, contained some surprises. For the most part, they weren’t in the missteps of the various parties - the would-haves and could-haves - but rather in how close they actually were to a deal. Almost every leader, with the glaring exception of House majority leader Eric Cantor, was willing to compromise.
This is not bad news at all, because the proposals that circulated last July, containing some areas of agreement, still exist as a starting point for next time. The long-term deficit isn’t going away soon, and will require attention again at the end of the year.
President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner came off in the reports as sincere, if overly skittish, in negotiating for a “grand bargain’’ combining cuts to entitlement programs with increases in tax revenues. However, Obama reportedly shifted his position several times on the amount of revenue he required, even after tentatively signing off on a lower number. That was enough to allow Boehner to back out, claiming Obama had “moved the goalposts.’’ This was probably just an excuse to cover for the fact that Cantor, Boehner’s ambitious number two, was rallying the GOP rank and file against any deal that included any new revenues at all.
But Boehner’s willingness to compromise seems to have been genuine, and so too was that of Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell and many other Republican senators. That’s a lot to work with, if Obama were to be re-elected and ready to deal again in January.
There’s never been any disagreement among the commissions exploring the long-term deficit on the need for both sensible adjustments to Medicare benefits and Social Security, and tax changes to raise revenues. The inability of the political leaders to reach such a deal has been more than maddening. But it’s a relief to know that most leaders in Washington actually agreed on the broad outlines of such a plan, and so reasonable voters can concentrate their attention on those who didn’t: Cantor and the Tea Party wing of the House GOP.