Commentary Magazine


Another Dem “No” Could Be a Big Mistake

After weeks of heeding the calls to confrontation from their most hard-line members, the House Republican leadership has taken a step toward at least a partial settlement of the current fiscal standoff. The question is: can President Obama and the Democrats get off their high horse and accept this olive branch? Leading up to today’s meeting between the president and a group of Republicans, every indication is that the answer is no.

Democrats will argue that the Republican proposal, which would grant a six-week extension of the debt ceiling (with no spending cuts) while setting in place a process for resolving the other conflict over the budget that has led to a government shutdown, doesn’t satisfy the president’s demands. It leaves the government shutdown in place and obligates the president and his Democratic allies to negotiate with the GOP over both the budget and the debt. As such, they may well turn it down and demand either a one-year debt extension offered by Senate Democrats or simply hunker down and stick to their ultimatum requiring a complete Republican surrender on both the shutdown and the debt before the White House will deign to negotiate about anything else. Such a response would be consistent with the administration’s belief (backed up by opinion polls) that they are winning the shutdown and that all that is needed for the president to complete his triumph is just to stick to his position and wait for House Speaker John Boehner and his allies to give up.

But ten days into the shutdown, it’s time for the president to start re-evaluating his position. As much as the Democrats are getting less of the blame for the mess in Washington than the Republicans, the president’s 37 percent job approval rating should remind them that although the GOP is getting battered, nobody is winning in this fight. And if the president can’t find a way to accept the Republicans’ debt ceiling extension offer, then he may discover that the political fallout will start to even out.

Boehner’s strategy is fraught with danger for both parties. Though the House leadership appears willing to try and start finding a way out of the current impasse, many hard-line GOP conservatives are still reluctant to compromise and might actually vote against Boehner’s proposal if it came to a vote because there are no conditions attached to the debt limit extension. That would set up a theoretical situation in which the House leadership would be dependent on Democratic votes and therefore allow the president’s allies to scuttle the compromise and embarrass Boehner.

Just as troubling for Boehner is a scenario in which the president turns him down and forces him to get closer to the artificial debt deadline of next Wednesday. That would, as the president hopes, probably increase the pressure on the House to bend to the president’s demands.

But blindly sticking to his position of no negotiations until the House gives in on both the debt ceiling and the shutdown may be more dangerous for President Obama than he thinks.

So long as the public’s focus has been on Tea Party leaders like Senator Ted Cruz and their unrealistic (if justified) demands that ObamaCare be scrapped in exchange for a continuing resolution to fund the government, the White House wins. But once the spotlight shifts irrevocably to the affable Boehner and his compromise efforts, all the rhetoric emanating from the White House and Democratic leaders about hostage taking and extremism begins to sound a bit hysterical. It also makes the president’s refusal to negotiate sound that much more shrill and partisan.

Today’s compromise proposal may not be the beginning of the end of this battle. But it may be, to use one of Winston Churchill’s lines, the end of the beginning. At some point, the president is going to realize that not talking and demanding surrender are unattractive to most of the American public. As a second-term president with mounting problems at home and abroad, he’d be wise to find a way out of this mess before the turning point arrives and more Americans start blaming him, as they perhaps should have done all along.

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