Ruth Marcus: White House allows GOP to frame budget debate

WASHINGTON — I'm no sports nut but I've spent enough time at kids' soccer games to understand that it's impossible to score if you're playing on the wrong side of the field.

Which is why I have found the White House strategy for dealing with Republicans on the deficit to be so befuddling.

The fight over spending this fiscal year is a case in point. The prospect of a Republican takeover of the House was evident well before the election. The inevitable result was going to be more draconian cuts than would have been required if the spending bills were passed beforehand.  

In the aftermath of the Democrats' losses, the entire debate played out in terms they were destined to lose. If the argument is framed solely in terms of budget cuts, Republicans always win: They are willing to out-cut Democrats. That inescapable tilt was exacerbated by the virtual absence of a White House message about the impact of a shutdown or the cuts themselves.

In the final hours, Democrats rallied their troops with complaints about a Republican "war on women" — and held fast against eliminating funding for Planned Parenthood. But how many people knew that the House-passed budget would have eliminated allfederal money for family planning? Hardly anyone — because the White House and Democrats weren't telling them. The argument was about bottom-line numbers, not underlying policy.


A second, maddening example of the White House allowing the other side to frame the debate involves the longer-term fiscal picture. The president convened a commission on the topic and then abandoned it. First, he did not lift a finger to help his co-chairs, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, assemble the 14 votes necessary to get the commission's plan a congressional vote. Then, when the plan was released, the president pointedly declined to express a view. He stuck to the vagueness strategy in his State of the Union address and his 2012 budget proposal.

In the meantime, the void was filled — and the playing field was shifted even further rightward — by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan. The Wisconsin Republican unveiled a plan that makes the centrist Simpson-Bowles proposal look as if it were written by Nancy Pelosi and Howard Dean.

If the White House had weighed in on Simpson-Bowles before the Ryan plan's release, it could have staked out an argument that the framework — a combination of spending cuts and tax increases — was correct but that some specifics (the precise mix of the two, the details of the Social Security fix) went too far in the conservative direction. Now the "reasonable" compromise would be between Simpson-Bowles on the leftward side and Ryan on the right.

The White House decided to hold back and let Ryan go first. The notion was that his plan would look so extreme that it would give Democrats a useful opening to attack, much as Republicans scored points against Democrats during the last election over cuts to Medicare in the new health care law.


Meanwhile, the administration insisted, coming forward with a plan of its own would be counterproductive. The history of budget deals, officials argued, was that public presidential proposals get shot down (George W. Bush on Social Security in 2005, for example); successful outcomes are crafted behind the scenes.

Indeed, this was happening in the form of the so-called Gang of Six, the bipartisan group of senators working to write the Simpson-Bowles framework into law. Just as the gang was nearing agreement, the Ryan plan came along and the White House, rattled by its reception, decided it needed to get into the game.

It hurriedly arranged for a speech and slapped together what seems to be shaping up less as an Obama plan than as an endorsement of the Gang of Six approach. I'm all for the president weighing in — in fact, I've been recommending it for months. But I question the haste and timing: If the Gang of Six looks like the Democratic alternative to Ryan, its Republican members will be out on a limb.


Georgia Republican Saxby Chambliss, who convened the gang along with Virginia Democrat Mark Warner, said the White House "threw us a little bit of a curveball" with its surprise Sunday announcement. And if the White House was going to support the Simpson-Bowles framework all along, why not do it earlier and take advantage of the momentum?

Back to the sports metaphor, it makes you wonder: Can't anybody here play this game?


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