As the debt-ceiling showdown heads into its final stages, the political maneuvering has intensified, with both sides seeking to gain the upper hand in the public-relations war. Leaders from both parties know the stakes in this fight are very, very high; confrontations of this sort tend to become defining moments in political life, for good or ill. At this stage, anything could still happen, with many scenarios still in play. But for Republicans, there are reasons to worry that this showdown could be headed toward a political and fiscal debacle if they are not very careful.
It wouldn’t be the first time Democrats got the better of Republicans in a budget fight. In 1990, Richard Darman, who was director of the Office of Management and Budget, wanted to strike a budget deal to bring projected budget deficits down by $500 billion over five years. As a precondition for entering the talks, however, Democratic Senate majority leader George Mitchell demanded that Pres. George H. W. Bush renege, in writing, on his “no new taxes” pledge. The president did so at Darman’s urging, and from that moment on, the president’s standing and leverage plummeted. At crucial moments in the ensuing process, the tax increases kept getting larger and more onerous, and the spending cuts and entitlement reforms kept getting more ephemeral. In the end, it was just a question of how bad the political fallout would be for the president, which of course turned out to be very bad indeed.
In the current fight, it’s quite clear what President Obama and his allies are trying to accomplish. First, they want a package upon which the president can campaign in 2012. Something on the order of a “$3 trillion deficit-cutting program” (no matter how phony) — or even $2 trillion — would help the president downplay the big-spending, liberal image that most independent voters now have of him.