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Why It's So Hard For Republicans To Accept A Deal With Obama

One of the underrated impediments to a debt ceiling hike is the Republican belief that any agreement with President Obama is by definition a bad one. Part of this is the rational partisan urge to deny Obama a big accomplishment he could use to position himself for 2012. Another is a simple heuristic. Budget agreements are convoluted and require assumptions about how present agreements will bind future actors. If you consider Obama a socialist, then anything he agrees to by definition can't be a moderate deficit-cutting program to reduce government.

Obviously, we can't get into the heads of various Republicans and suss out their mental processes. But you can almost prove that this phenomenon is occurring via a simple thought experiment. Obama has signaled his support for at least two major deficit-reducing agreements. When presented with these plans, conservatives have two major decisions to make. One is, does this constitute a genuine (or supportable) deficit-reduction program? And two, is Obama's support for it genuine?

In theory, these would be two separable questions. You could map out conservative reactions into four boxes, representing the four yes/no positions on those two questions. In reality, conservative reaction has broken down into just two positions. You have those who dislike the plan while agreeing that Obama supports it, and those who like the plan in question but doubt Obama supports it. The other two boxes (like the plan and agree that Obama supports it, and dislike the plan and doubt Obama supports it) appear, as far as I can see, empty.

So, for instance, when word leaked of an Obama-Boehner Grand Bargain, you had the Wall Street Journal editorial page denouncing the deal for raising taxes. Charles Krauthammer, by contrast, described the details as "offers of surpassing scope and reasonableness," but insisted they could not be real because they were being proffered behind closed doors. The Journal opposed the reported plan, which allowed it to accept reports of the plan's details, while Krauthammer liked the details, which forced him to angrily deny its existence. Other conservative commentary I've seen has fallen into these two categories.

Likewise, last week the Gang of Six came out with a deficit proposal. After both Republicans and deficit scolds assailed him for failing to openly endorse the deficit commission's plan last December, this time Obama embraced the Gang of Six. Conservative reaction again fell into the same two camps. You had conservatives attacking the Gang of Six. (This was the majority reaction, as the Gang of Six plan was significantly more liberal than the deal Republicans had walked away from with Obama.) You also had conservatives praising the Gang of Six but assailing Obama. See Peggy Noonan's column this weekend:

It is time for the president to get out of the way....
The other day he announced the Gang of Six agreement with words that enveloped the plan in his poisonous embrace: "I wanted to give folks a quick update on the progress that we're making." We're. He has "continued to urge both Democrats and Republicans to come together." What would those little devils do without Papa? "The good news is that today a group of senators . . . put forward a proposal that is broadly consistent with the approach that I've urged." I've urged. Me, me, me.
That approach includes "shared sacrifice, and everybody is giving up something." He was like a mother coming in and cheerily announcing: "Dinner's served! Less for everybody!"
We're trying to begin a comeback, not a famine. We're trying to take actions that will allow us to grow.
He's like a walking headache. He's probably triggering Michele Bachmann's migraines.
The Gang of Six members themselves should have been given the stage to make their own announcement, and their own best case.
The president, if he is seriously trying to avert a debt crisis, should stay in his office, meet with members, and work the phones, all with a new humility, which would be well received. It is odd how he patronizes those with more experience and depth in national affairs.

This is more or less what a Republican staffer inadvertently conceded when he told Mike Allen that Obama's embrace killed the Gang of Six plan. Republicans simply may not have the emotional capacity to accept a bargain that they don't see as a humiliation for Obama. Obama seems to have figured this out, and is trying to let Democrats in Congress make the deal for him. The Journal has favored just raising the debt ceiling even without policy concessions, and is trying to pitch a compromise ironed out within Congress as a repudiation of Obama's negotiating skills. (Today's editorial argues, "it says something that the country has a better shot of getting something out of a divided Congress than it does out of the Oval Office."

The Journal seems to view this angle as the best way to get conservatives to back down -- sell them on cutting a deal with Democrats in Congress, and present this as a repudiation of Obama. Well, whatever works for them.