Or, Piggy in the Middle
Democrats seem to be talking themselves into a story in which Barack Obama, by trying to compromise, is easily susceptible to a good cop, bad cop approach in which John Boehner keeps asking for a little bit more and Obama keeps moving to meet him halfway. The liberal's version of the budget negotiations is perfectly captured in this Tom Tomorrow comic.
I think, for the most part, it's pure bunk. In the liberal story, a lot of weight is given to the House GOP leadership's initial FY 2011 plan. But that plan turned out to be DOA in the House. To interpret the next steps -- in which what actually emerged from the House involved much larger cuts and a wide variety of policy riders -- as simply a "bad cop" episode, in which the Republicans collectively decided to gain bargaining advantage by embracing more and more extreme positions is to miss the point, I think. As far as can be told by campaign rhetoric and House votes, a lot of Members of the GOP conference campaigned on, and are really committed to, these positions. The initial GOP leadership plan, that is, was the thing that was out of step with the reality of where the votes were -- Boehner and Ryan mistakenly made an initial proposal that was just about on the edge of where a compromise would have to be.
Nor is it the case that the House GOP was simply pushing arbitrarily to the right for bargaining advantage. During floor consideration of the original House CR, several Tea Party type amendments, including at least one with far more dramatic spending cuts, failed. Presumably, if the intent was to establish arbitrary goalposts that would then shift the final deal to their side, House Republicans would have moved even farther. Instead, what seems to be the case is that the House CR really just represented what Republicans wanted, rather than what they thought they could get.
The final deal -- probably something like $35B in additional cuts this year, probably much of it distributed according to GOP priorities, but probably with few if any significant, substantive policy riders -- will, indeed, be a victory for movement conservatives. But it's not, and certainly not primarily, a bargaining victory. It's a consequence of a massive GOP landslide last November and of the policy positions advocated by the winners of those elections. Along with, of course, the results of the 2008 presidential election and the 2006 and 2008 Senate election cycles. I'm open to evidence that bargaining skill (or lack of skill) is going to move the final result a bit one way or another, but most of the liberal story is based, as far as I can see, on just not quite believing that Republicans with those policy views actually won. Barack Obama can't afford that luxury.