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Hullabaloo


Sunday, April 07, 2013

 
The Grand Bargain is bad negotiating. It's bad eleventh dimensional chess, too.

by David Atkins

The two main arguments in defense of the President's proposal seem to be that:

1) the Grand Bargain proposal is dead on arrival, anyway, so it doesn't matter except as a way to make Republicans look extreme;

and

2) the Grand Bargain is preferable to the sequester, so Democrats are doing the right thing to accept it as the lesser of two evils.

These are funny arguments for a few reasons, not least of which is that they're mutually exclusive. If the Grand Bargain has no chance of passage, then it's not a legitimate play to present an alternative to the sequester. If there is a chance of it passing then it's a real offer, not a gambit in eleventh dimensional chess.

But let's take each argument in turn, starting with the latter. Digby already covered the fact that the forced choice between the sequester and the Grand Bargain is an unnecessary illusion. Sequestration is deeply, wildly unpopular with most people. Neither side wants to be left holding the bag in support of it, except in extreme Republican districts.

Cutting Social Security, meanwhile, is also extremely unpopular. The first basic rule of politics is that if one's opponent wants and demands really unpopular things, the right move is to hammer them on it every single day until election day. The answer isn't to simply give in because they won't do anything else, or to offer something equally unpopular in the hopes they will relent. And if Republicans can't be made to pay a political price in 2014 or 2016 at the latest for supporting radically stupid policies, then the country is in serious trouble, anyway. One has to at least make an attempt to intimidate them by using the threat of electoral defeat. The government is already lurching from crisis to crisis, anyway, unable to pass even basic legislation. What difference would a more aggressive stance from Democrats make to that equation, except to give David Brooks heart palpitations? Little to none.

More importantly, a Grand Bargain is potentially more damaging than sequestration. Sequestration is highly damaging on its face. Republicans hate the dumb, non-targeted cuts to military programs; Democrats hate the dumb, non-targeted cuts to social programs. It's just bad all around. It was designed to be bad so that politicians would do something else.

But chained CPI is not so obviously awful at first. It's subtle at first, a cut that gets worse over time. The difference between sequestration and chained CPI is like the difference between throwing a frog in a pot of hot water, and slowly heating the frog's water to boil. The frog is much likelier to jump out of the first pot than the second.

As to the first argument that the Grand Bargain will fail regardless, so it's a good way to make Republicans look even more extreme? That's the so-called "eleventh dimensional chess" argument: the view that Barack Obama is using deft jiu-jitsu to put Republicans in an impossible situation, painting them into a deeper corner of extremism. This fantasy is even more misguided. First, it may not fail. Second, cutting social security is not a great method of endearing oneself to the public. Again, it's important to remember that the vast majority of the public does not want to cut Social Security. Cutting Social Security doesn't make a politician look reasonable to the average voter. It makes them look crazy and extremist. Only in the Beltway is cutting Social Security seen as a laudable position.

Telling the public, "I offered to cut Social Security for them, and they wouldn't even go for that" isn't a great way to please anyone but David Brooks. The rest of the voting public will throw their hands up in disgust at a political system where both parties allow economy-wrecking billionaire CEOs to walk free while cutting paltry meal assistance for the elderly.

Even beyond that, offering Social Security cuts today becomes the benchmark for negotiations in the future.

Rhetoric itself has consequences, even if it doesn't lead to legislation. Rhetoric communicates values. Rhetoric creates starting points for new battles ahead. And the rhetoric of cutting Social Security for no good reason is terrible for Democrats politically, and terrible for the country as a matter of public policy.

The Grand Bargain is bad policy. It's bad negotiating. It's bad eleventh dimensional chess, too.


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