Suddenly Republican leaders in Congress, after months of staring down the Democrats over a potentially disastrous debt default, began blinking so fast that they might be signaling in Morse code. Although their message is muddled and illogical -- with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., saying he can accept closing tax loopholes only if such measures are "revenue neutral," thus canceling their budgetary value -- the Republicans now appear to understand that they will be blamed by voters if the negotiations collapse.
And Democrats appear to understand that they have the political advantage, as they voiced support for a proposal by Senate Budget Committee chair Kent Conrad, D-N.D., to reduce future deficits by $4 trillion with an even split between increased revenues and reduced spending.
But just when the Republicans are showing fear and losing momentum, there is one important Democrat who seems to think it is time to wave the white flag -- and give his enemies a historic victory on the eve of his own re-election bid.
According to The Washington Post, President Obama wants "significant" cuts to Social Security and Medicare in exchange for Republican agreement to let tax breaks for the nation's wealthiest families expire at the end of this year. While White House press secretary Jay Carney would say only that the president is opposed to "slashing" Social Security benefits, that is a semantic dodge leaving open the prospect of substantial cuts.
Why would the president undermine his party's longstanding support for the two highly popular federal programs -- especially when polls consistently show overwhelming majorities in both parties continue to oppose cutting Social Security and Medicare benefits? It isn't as if there is any great enthusiasm for Obama or his economic leadership among Democratic voters. Indeed, he and congressional Democrats only began to achieve political traction again -- for the first time since the midterm elections -- when the Republicans foolishly lined up behind the plan promoted by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to transform Medicare from a public entitlement to a privatized voucher.
Over the past several weeks, Democrats pressed that advantage by portraying the Republicans as defenders of tax loopholes for corporate jet owners and oil companies and enemies of middle-class families. Ideological and belligerent, the Republicans eagerly leaped into that trap. But the Democratic strategy worked so well that even the most extreme elements in the Republican leadership -- such as Cantor -- suddenly saw that they had closed themselves into a very dangerous box.
That is why Cantor -- and Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, R-Ariz. -- began to babble the usual euphemisms about "increased revenues," "user fees" and "closing loopholes" over the past few days, using language that directly contradicts their own earlier hard-line rhetoric.
Of course, Republican support for fee hikes and closed loopholes that add up to a negligible amount -- or to nothing at all, as Cantor apparently prefers -- won't satisfy Democrats who now know that pushing back works. They might well imitate Republican intransigence, accept the concessions by Kyl and Cantor, and push back even harder.
The Senate Democratic budget plan would reduce the deficit from $4 trillion to $5 trillion over the coming decade, according to Conrad's calculations. By requiring that half of the total come from tax increases and ending tax loopholes, Conrad would raise roughly $2 trillion to match a similar amount in spending cuts, which is far more than the president has proposed. Last spring, for instance, the White House suggested that Congress should cut $3 in spending for every dollar in revenue raised.
Conrad is among the most conservative of Senate Democrats, but he is retiring after this year, which may permit him to take positions he might avoid if facing re-election in his home state. What he proposes would be fairer to American families, better for the American economy and more desirable for his party, too, than Obama's deal.
But the restored courage demonstrated by Democratic senators in support of his plan will not accomplish much if the president is determined to capitulate on fundamental principles. Should he prove to be so foolish, then he will find himself another step closer to the end of his presidency.