I’ve hit this a little bit, but I want to quickly wind back around to Matt Yglesias’ post on the White House’s debt limit political strategy:

It’s generally wise to assume that the White House isn’t blind to that obvious potential political problem. Part of what they’re thinking is that a 2011 agreement to long-term spending cuts is the best way to avoid the need to reduce spending during the election season. How’s that? Well, it’s because the fiscal consolidation plans being discussed are for trillions of dollars worth of cuts over a 10-year horizon. Since you’ve got that horizon, it’s not strictly necessary for any of them to come between September 2011 and November 2012. On the contrary, in principle spending could go up in the short-term consistent with any long-term cuts. By contrast, what happens if the White House winds up getting a “clean” debt ceiling increase is that we then head into the September lapse in appropriations. It’ll be a replay of the “government shutdown” fight in which the GOP goal has to be short-term cuts. And the White House isn’t going to get away without giving something up in that fight. In other words, clean debt ceiling increase = guarantee of fiscal anti-stimulus, whereas a 10-year spending cut plan leaves open room to avoid that.

I don’t think I’m picking on Matt, who’s just the messenger here and who says outright that he doesn’t really agree with the strategy. Others have reported this as generally what the White House is thinking.

So let’s hone in on the sentence doing all the work here, the one that holds the logic together, the one I boldfaced. “And the White House isn’t going to get away without giving something up in that fight.” This shows the major difference between Democrats and Republicans with respect to politics in the current era.

You’ll remember that the 2011 appropriations fight resulted in Republicans pushing hard for their bargaining position and coming out with $39 billion in cuts to budgetary authority. I think when people look at the actual spending that’s been done and say that Obama fleeced the Republicans on that one, it makes for good copy but it’s a red herring. The budgetary authority is reduced, and that becomes the new baseline, magnifying cuts in the future. So the cuts will have an impact.

Let’s explain what didn’t happen as a result of that. Republicans didn’t say, “Now we have the debt limit coming up. And the White House isn’t going to let us get away without giving something up in that fight.” No, they said, “Next time it will be trillions.” In other words, Republicans get a win and think “Let’s do that again!” Democrats get a win and think “There’s no way we’ll be able to do that again!”

Now, it’s certainly possible that the longer-term deal will stretch out the cuts to a degree that they won’t have an impact in FY 2012. I certainly hope that’s the case. But McConnell-Reid could also have a spending cap for FY 2012; that’s been reported. So we don’t yet know. And anyway, this reading negates the possibility that the White House could force Republicans into submission on the 2012 budget the same way they forced them into submission on the debt limit – a submission they then decided not to take.

Ultimately, I think this reasoning is a mask to cover the fact that the White House really, really wants to cut the deficit for ideological reasons. But nonetheless, it’s pretty deeply revealing.

David Dayen

David Dayen

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