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The One Democratic Advantage: Unified Leadership

The debate about which side has the edge in the debt-ceiling showdown continues. A new Gallup poll shows that most Americans are still opposed to raising the debt ceiling, a position that buttresses the Republicans’ reluctance to do so under the current circumstances. But liberal New York Times analyst Nate Silver claims the same survey demonstrates the Obama administration’s bargaining position advocating some spending cuts along with tax increases is closer to what the public wants than the GOP’s adamant refusal to contemplate higher taxes. But however you interpret that data, there is one element in this dispute in which the Democrats do have a clear advantage: unified leadership.

President Obama’s behavior during the talks may be wildly inconsistent as he alternately proposes compromises and then angrily stalks out of talks. But there is no doubt as to who is leading his side. It’s Obama’s show, and whether or not Americans are buying his pose as the only adult in the room  (I doubt it), it’s still probably going over better than the mixed signals being sent by the Republicans.

It’s not clear from day to day who’s running the Republican team. At times it seems as if Speaker John Boehner is Obama’s counterpart, and other days it appears as if House Majority Leader Eric Cantor is supplanting him. It would be one thing if it were just Cantor playing bad cop to Boehner’s more compromise-friendly good cop in negotiations with Obama. But the vibe coming out of the House leadership appears to be a bit more complicated as tensions between the two seem to be more a matter of rivalry and ideology than just a division of roles. Boehner’s problem is that a large part of his caucus has no interest in raising the debt ceiling under any circumstances and Cantor, whose job is to count and manage those votes seems to be more in touch right now with the members than the Speaker. Throw in Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose own compromise plan went over like a lead balloon in the House GOP caucus, and you have a real problem.

Part of this can’t be helped. The president is always going to have an edge over the leadership of Congress no matter which party runs either end of Pennsylvania Avenue. But the problem here is as we get closer to the August 2 deadline for a resolution of the debt ceiling problem, divided GOP counsels in which Cantor is portrayed as the hardliner undermining Boehner’s efforts to arrive at a solution are making it easier for Obama–who believes he is playing the stronger hand right now–to portray himself as a moderate being thwarted by GOP extremists.

There appears no easy solution to a showdown in which a principled GOP refusal to raise taxes is being met head on by a Democratic insistence on them. But whatever the next step, Boehner and Cantor need to work harder to have a unified message if they are to avoid taking the blame for the consequences of a problem they can’t fix on their own.



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