Let’s Make a Secret Deal

Why Obama and Republicans will never talk about their budget negotiations.

The only way President Obama and congressional Republicans may get a budget deal is if they make it look like it will never happen. The president said as much last week. “Both sides will have to do some posturing and speak to constituencies and rally the troops,” he said. But he also expressed faith “that there will be a reasonable and responsible and toned-down conversation.”

The difference between the two kinds of communications is the difference between what’s said in the negotiating room and what’s said in front of the microphones. Bash them in public, work with them in private: That’s the operating principle, but as both the president and House Speaker John Boehner have demonstrated, narrowcasting to your base is difficult in the hypernews environment where your words can get away from you.

The best illustration of the two-track conversation came last year during the negotiations over extending the Bush-era tax cuts. On Dec. 4, 2010, Vice President Joe Biden gave the White House radio address while the president was visiting the troops in Afghanistan. He criticized Republicans for their push to deny benefits to the unemployed and raise taxes on the middle class. He suggested it was un-American and not in keeping with the spirit of the holiday season.

The GOP wasn’t actually pushing to raise taxes on the middle class, of course. Biden was distorting their position to pressure them. The GOP was doing the same thing to the president. The rhetoric wasn’t toxic, but neither did it suggest that a deal was near. Two days later, a deal would be announced. Biden was one of its authors. He’d been involved in secret negotiating for weeks with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Throughout the process, say White House aides, Boehner and McConnell acted in good faith. In public, though, the White House was portraying them as heartless.

Bash-and-deal is a pretty good model for budget negotiations, says the president. He was also encouraged to operate this way by Jack Lew, his OMB director, who was in the Clinton White House during the last government shutdown. Lew’s advice was that the minute you start putting grand and specific deficit ideas on the table in public, you immediately foreclose options you might need to embrace in a final deal.

The downside of carrying on two conversations is that the things you say for public consumption might disrupt your private work. In a seemingly bipartisan effort to prove this point, the president and speaker simultaneously lost control of efforts to deliver messages to specific constituencies in recent days.

The president tried to deliver a calibrated statement about the budget fight in Wisconsin. In times of austerity, he said, everyone had to sacrifice, including the public sector unions, but Gov. Scott Walker’s efforts looked like overreach that disproportionately targeted unions. A Democratic president must support the union cause, but he tried to respond “in stride,” as one White House official put it, which is to say that he didn’t run out of his way to comment on the issue, nor would he do so again. He certainly was not going to make good on his promise during the campaign: “If American workers are being denied their right to organize when I’m in the White House, I will put on a comfortable pair of shoes and I will walk on that picket line with you as president of the United States.”

The White House didn’t want to say more for two reasons. As with the protests in the Middle East, it’s better for Obama’s long-term interests if the revolt in Wisconsin is seen as a thoroughly grassroots uprising. More important, speaking out also breaks the new White House rules about discipline. The goal is to have the president stay focused on his message about improving American competitiveness—avoiding each fracas over a budget line item or other news of the day.

The attempt to send a discreet message failed. Republicans pounced on Obama’s meddling. Boehner said the president was trying to “demagogue” the Wisconsin governor. Boehner knows something about losing message control. For weeks Democrats have predicted Republicans would be inflexible in their budget demands and shut down the government. The hope has been to cow them into compromise by reminding voters of the shutdown in 1995, which, it is widely believed, marked the start of Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s downfall.

Boehner and GOP leaders have been clear that’s not what they want. Yet with two weeks to go before funding for the government runs out, Boehner said he would not support a bill to extend government funding that did not have spending cuts in it. It seemed like a threat to shut down government operations unless he got what he wanted.

The week was supposed to end on a high note. Boehner had broken with past practice and allowed lawmakers of both parties to participate in a free-flowing legislative process. The result had been GOP-sponsored cuts of $60 billion, in partial fulfillment of one of their campaign promises. That message was clouded, however, with renewed talk of a government shutdown. That emboldened Democrats—and it emboldened Republican freshmen in the House, who are anxious to take every measure necessary to keep shrinking the size of government.

But Boehner and GOP leaders don’t want to shut down the government and thus risk seeming reckless. (Unlike the governor of Wisconsin, they don’t have majorities throughout the government, which makes brinksmanship easier.) To cool down the troops, GOP leaders held a meeting late last week with most of the 87 freshmen members. “We are not about shutting down the government,” said Majority Leader Eric Cantor. That’s a message they want heard inside the room and out.

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