In his combative response to President Obama's speech
last night, House Speaker John Boehner offered an uncommonly crystalized
rendition of an all too common bit of GOP nonsense:

The solution to this crisis is
not complicated: if you're spending more money than you're taking in, you need
to spend less of it.

The rush transcript from the Wall Street Journal mistakenly ends this sentence with a comma, as
if the transcriber were waiting for the phrase that follows logically:
"...and/or take in more of it." It didn't come. Without that phrase, it's the
usual bait and switch: if the budget deficit is a problem, smaller government
is somehow the only solution. Add the phrase and the sentence is obviously
correct, clear to any eight-year-old who's figured out how to get her lemonade
stand in the black.

The difference between the two--between reducing the
deficit solely with spending cuts and doing so with both cuts and modest
revenue increases--is the only substantive difference involved in the
debt-ceiling fight. But you wouldn't know it from Boehner's turbocharged
rhetoric. (Obama "wants a blank check"? In what sense can a check written to
pay for specific expenses already incurred be described as blank?) The Speaker
can't prevent voters from seeing the Republicans as extreme and unyielding, but
he can try to make Democrats look just as bad, facts be damned.

It seems to work for him. After countless Democratic
concessions and zero Republican ones, Bloomberg is still able to corral a heap of voter-on-the-street quotes to the effect
of "a pox on both their houses." Americans want compromise, not gridlock!
CCblogger Robert McDowell's comparison between politics and marriage is
helpful as far as it goes: in either case, nothing works without compromise.
But the relevant analog isn't two people having an honest go at sorting through
their differences; it's a marriage in which one partner bends over backward
while the other refuses to budge.

Boehner is trying to push his own proposal through
Congress. If he succeeds, it's not clear whether Obama will sign it into law.
It's hard to veto a bill that would steer us around financial disaster at the
last possible second. On the other hand, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities
it would do so by steering us into "the
greatest increase in poverty and hardship produced by any law in modern U.S.
history"--and it would set the stage for another debt-ceiling fight next year.

That doesn't work for Obama, whose biggest goal is to
come out of this process well-primed for reelection. While it's been
frustrating to see him give up so much in the effort to reach a deal,
it's important to remember how limited a president's power really is. If
the Republicans don't ever want to say yes, they don't have to.

Obama does, however, have some other options. If Congress
has no more luck getting to yes than the Obama-Boehner talks did, the president
could invoke the 14th amendment or even mint a $1 trillion coin or two. The fact that
the White House won't talk publicly about such unilateral courses of action
doesn't mean it's not considering them.

Steve Thorngate

The Century managing editor is also a church musician and songwriter.

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