Some of us like to think big. We thought at the beginning of this debt crisis mess that it might be possible to reach a grand bargain. This deal would make a serious dent in the country's awful debt problem. It would begin to reform entitlements. It would involve enough revenue to forestall ruinous cuts in domestic programs.
The grand bargain would yield obvious political benefits. President Barack Obama would show independents that he could move to the center. Republicans would be able to brag about a big reduction in the size of government.
Alas, the dream of a grand bargain died Friday evening for three reasons.
First, it was always going to be difficult to round up the necessary congressional votes. Republicans didn't want the tax increases. Democrats didn't want the entitlement cuts.
Second, the White House negotiating process was inadequate. Neither the president nor the House speaker ever wrote down and released their negotiating positions. Everything was mysterious, shifting and slippery. One day the president was agreeing to an $800 billion revenue increase; the next day he was asking for $400 billion more. Spending cuts that seemed to be part of the package suddenly seemed hollow. Negotiating partners disappeared.
Third, the president lost his cool. Obama never should have gone in front of the cameras just minutes after the talks faltered Friday evening. His appearance was suffused with that "I'm the only mature person in Washington" condescension that drives everybody else crazy. He talked about unreturned phone calls and being left at the altar, personalizing the issue like a spurned prom date.
Obama's Friday appearance had a gigantic unintended consequence. It brought members of Congress together. They decided to take control. The White House is now on the sidelines. Democratic and Republican congressional leaders are negotiating directly with one another.
The atmosphere has changed. It now seems more likely that we will get a deal. It just won't be as significant as we grand bargainers originally wanted.
John Boehner and Harry Reid will continue to verbally abuse each other. But there's a script to their taunts. Nobody's feelings are hurt. The old pros are perfectly capable of exchanging cliched volleys in the morning and then going off and negotiating with each other in the afternoon.
Furthermore, the negotiating process has changed. On Monday, both Boehner and Reid produced proposals. The main points were written down and available for all to see. Each side not only represented its own views, it sent signals about where future agreements could be found.
Boehner released a plan that involved statutory spending caps with an enforcement mechanism to make sure the cuts are real. Reid released a plan involving bigger long-term spending cuts, with much of the heavy lifting done by a bipartisan select committee.
With a little imagination, it's easy to see how they could be merged to give everybody something. Republicans would get some guaranteed spending reductions. Democrats in swing states could campaign on a nominal multitrillion-dollar debt reduction while protecting entitlements. Republicans wouldn't have to vote on raising the debt ceiling until after some guaranteed spending cuts. Democrats could count the reduced Iraq and Afghanistan wars costs as part of the spending reductions.
It's not clear if an arrangement would really push the next debt ceiling fight until after the 2012 election, but even that could presumably be fudged, especially if Democrats were willing to give the Republicans broader spending cuts and a balanced-budget amendment vote in the Senate.
On the one hand, there has been an outbreak of sanity since Congress took control. On the other hand, the deal they are working on doesn't come close to cutting the $4 trillion or so many say would be required to prevent a downgrade of the U.S. debt.
This should be a humbling moment for the White House, and maybe a learning experience. There are other people who have been around Washington a long time. They know how to play this game. As a result of their efforts, we may see some debt reduction but nothing big and transformational. Obama won't get his centrist election boost. Republicans won't have to wrestle with tax increases. Democrats won't have to wrestle with entitlement reform.
The Old Guard wins. Obama's televised campaign speech Monday night was behind the times. The action has moved to Capitol Hill.
© 2011 New York Times News Service