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Mitch McConnell's Mixed Message

Mitch McConnell continues to send out confusing signals about a deficit agreement. On the one hand, he invokes the tradition of the grand bipartisan compromise:

"I actually think it would be easier to pass a comprehensive plan," McConnell said. "The American people also want us to tackle the problem. And if we do it together, there will be no political price to be paid for it whatsoever. Let me give you a couple of examples. Ronald Reagan and [former House Speaker] Tip O’Neill fixed Social Security in 1983. It’s lasted for a generation. Reagan carried 49 of 50 states the next year. They did it together. Reagan and O’Neill did tax reform in 1986, Bill Clinton and Republicans did welfare reform in 1996, and Bill Clinton and Republicans actually balanced the budget for a number of years in the late 1990s.
"All of those efforts had significant political problems attached to them, but when you do it together, which one of the great opportunities presented by divided government, serendipitously nobody pays a price for it the next year because neither side can take advantage. So this is the perfect time for a grand, significant package on deficit and debt, and I hope that the president will not miss the opportunity."

That's clear enough. Both sides meet halfway and end up with something that neither regards as perfect but both consider an improvement over the status quo. That would be a deficit deal with a balanced mix of spending cuts and revenue increases. The 1983 Social Security agreement was exactly in that mold. The 1986 tax reform lowered rates, which Republicans liked, and increased progressivity, which Democrats liked.

But McConnell also says the deal must consist entirely of spending cuts:

"I can say pretty confidently, as the speaker has, that we are not going to raise taxes in this agreement," McConnell told National Journal during a lengthy interview in his Capitol office. "And what the president ought to say to his own political left is, ‘Those crazy Republicans won’t let me raise taxes, but we need to do this for the country.’

Well, okay. Maybe he can hold the debt ceiling hostage to making policy changes that McConnell approves of but Obama doesn't. That would means that Obama is free to go to the public and denounce the cuts he was forced to make -- i.e., "take advantage."

McConnell seems not to understand the difference between a hostage negotiation and a normal political compromise. But it's Obama's responsibility to correct this confusion, and it seems increasingly likely that he has failed to do so.