fresh voices from the front lines of change







"I want what I want when I want it."

Those are Eric Cantor’s words. No, they’re not words he said recently, but words he chose years ago, for his high school yearbook quote. And while it may seem unfair to bring them up now (After all, how many of us said or did things in high school that make us cringe now?), they’re actually a perfect distillation of not just Eric Cantor’s approach to the debt ceiling negotiations, but that of the tea party contingent he represents: They want what they want when they want it. Or else.

It doesn’t matter that most of the rest of us don’t want what they want. It doesn’t matter that what they want would be disastrous for the economy, and millions of American families. It’s what they want, and they want it now.

What’s emerging in the debt deal negotiations is a "no-compromise" faction of the Republican party that will use moments like the debt deal negotiations to accomplish what they have been unable to accomplish through the legislative process, and unable to accomplish through persuasion — because most Americans don’t really want what they want.

Recent polls show that what most Americans want don’t want Cantor and the tea party want, and are willing to take the economy to the brink of disaster to in order to get. A Gallup poll shows that a majority of Americans favor a mix of spending cuts and tax increases to reduce the deficit. In another poll, a majority agreed that a deal to raise the debt ceiling should include tax increases for the wealthy and corporations, not just spending cuts.

So, when President Obama came to the bargaining table and concedes painful cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid — which astounded and enraged progressive like myself — in exchange for something as seemingly unobjectionable as closing tax loopholes that the wealthy and corporations exploit in order to pay even less in taxes, he probably seemed like a reasonably sincere negotiatior to a majority of Americans; especially moderate and independent voters. But not to"Young Guns" like Eric Cantor, Paul Ryan, and Kevin McCarthy. See, because closing tax loopholes is really a tax increase.

Ryan pushed back, arguing that Republicans cant follow Brooks advice.

What happens if you do what hes saying, is then you cant lower tax rates. So it does affect marginal tax rates. In order to lower marginal tax rates, you have to take away those loopholes so you can lower those tax rates. If you want to do what we call being revenue neutral If you take a deal like that, youre necessarily requiring tax rates to be higher for everybody. You need lower tax rates by going after tax loopholes. If you take away the tax loopholes without lowering tax rates, then you deny Congress the ability to lower everybodys tax rates and you keep peoples tax rates high.

Lets take a moment to translate this. Ryan realizes that if policymakers ended these tax subsidies, it would help lower the deficit, and make it less necessary to make other cuts that would hurt working families. But debt-reduction isnt Ryans principal goal; cutting tax rates is. When the Republican House Budget Committee chairman argues that were facing some sort of debt crisis, its really just a shell game Ryan wants tax cuts. Period. Full stop.

If this doesn’t sound like a teenager explaining why you really should give him what he wants and give it to him now, I don’t know what does.

It’s probably overdone, but it’s too tempting and to apt to apply the parent/child analogy, and to cast Cantor and the tea party caucus in the role of tantruming toddlers or petulant children who want what they want when they want it, and seem determined make sure no one has any peace until they do.

Even the tacticts are the same. Walking out of negotiations when it’s clear you’re not going to get exactly your way? You can almost hear the teenager’s bedroom door slamming with what you secretly wish really was finality.

But you know it’s not. Nothing’s final because you know you’ll be dragged back over the same issues as before — to rehash again that to which you’ve already said "No."

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor launched into a stemwinder before the teams had even had time to look at the options papers the staffs had developed. On three separate occasions, Cantor pushed for the sort of short-term increase the administration has explicitly ruled out. Cantor’s final effort to push the new plan came as the meeting was breaking up and the president was giving instruction to staff on how to prepare for the next set of talks. "Eric, don’t call my bluff," the president said. "I’m going to the American people on this." Then, as the story goes, he walked out.

The breakup of the meeting, while dramatic, seems a bit less so if you know that Obama also said "I’ll see you all tomorrow" before leaving the room. But, as if confirming Obama’s accusation that this was all "posturing," Cantor immediately rushed to reporters to inform them of the president’s dramatic exit. Nevertheless, one goal of the talks is now fulfilled. In his initial remarks announcing the White House negotiations, Obama said one goal was that "the parties will at least know where each others bottom lines are." Now they do.

Last night, Obama was clear with Cantor: either Republicans have to give on revenues or they have to give on their demand to match each dollar in debt-ceiling increases with a dollar in spending cuts. But there’s no $2.5 trillion package — which is the size of the debt-ceiling increase needed to get us through the next election — that’s all spending cuts.

The Republican Party, meanwhile, doesn’t have a bottom line so much as it has bottom lines, some of which conflict. No revenue, of course. That demand has come through.

If Obama is the only "adult in the room" it’s because GOP leaders like Boehner and McConnell have thrown up their hands and abandoned the field. Boehner, in particular, looks like the dad who knows the "Young Guns" aren’t anywhere near ready to take the reins he currently holds, but is resigned that they probably will anyway.

Obama sounds like a father who has run out of patience. (I say this having been, one at times, myself.) That impatience is beginning to spread. Democrats are openly expressing a desire to send Cantor and the tea party back to the kiddie table.

Behind the scenes, leading members of both parties have concluded that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) is an impediment to resolving the debt limit standoff, and should back down. Now, Democrats are publicly calling for him to get real or go home.

"House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has shown that he’s shouldn’t even be at the table," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) in a blistering floor speech Thursday morning. "And Republicans agree."

In a press conference shortly after Reid’s floor speech, one of his top deputies, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) explained the Dems’ frustrations.

"He is basically standing in the way," Schumer said. "It can’t just be Eric Cantor deciding everything. If Eric Cantor decides everything, I fear we’ll be in default."

Republicans, too, are reaching their limits with Cantor and the tea party’s uncompromising stand.

He’s telling them what they want to hear, said one Republican who is critical of Cantor. I suppose it helps him, the frustrated lawmaker said, but he’s all about Eric.

…Critics said he has been petulant in his dealings with the White House, and in positioning himself to the political right of Boehner whenever possible. They point to him walking out on the Biden talks, dominating nearly a weeks worth of discussions with the president and congressional leaders and complaining about being kept in the dark on the Obama-Boehner talks.

He lost a lot of credibility when he walked away from the table It was childish, said one House Republican with close ties to Cantor who spoke on condition of anonymity to preserve their friendship. This is his time to perform.

Seen from the other side of the looking glass — where negotiation means (a) demanding what you want and then (b) getting it — it’s not Cantor and the tea party that’s standing in the way. It’s the rest of us — Democrats, Republicans, Americans, etc., who want to get the debt ceiling deal done and avert impending disaster — who are standing in the way.

And that won’t do, because they want what they want when the want it. And they will either make us suffer until they get it, or pay for it when they don’t. It’s one thing to suffer for your principles. It’s sometimes even considered noble. It’s another to make others suffer for your principles, but if it gets you want you want when you want it…

It can also serve as an example of what happens when you don’t.

This week, Tea Party Patriots’ members and supporters are intensely calling various lawmakers: establishment Republicans, so-called "Blue Dog" Democrats and those freshmen Republicans elected to the House with tea party support.

"I think that it’s accurate to call it pressure," Martin said. "The other thing is, we’re holding these … freshmen accountable. A lot of these freshmen ran on the promise that they were not going to increase the debt ceiling. Now, they’re in D.C. with all of their colleagues on the Hill. And they’re buying into the company line, forgetting about the fact that the American people have elected them not to do that."

For those who vote to raise the debt limit, "The American people are going to watch what they did, watch what happens to the economy and next November, I think there will be consequences," Martin said.

Another major tea party booster echoed the sentiment.

Brendan Steinhauser, director of federal and state campaigns for the Washington-based FreedomWorks, explained that he and other activists understand the possible financial implications if the debt limit is not raised.

…He added: "Especially if you’re a Republican. The tea party is going to be looking for a handful of examples to be made."

It’s no mystery, then, that the only Republicans who will speak up against Cantor’s tea-party-driven antics will only do so anonymously. It suggests a party that lately seems a lot like the family who walks on eggshells let it incur the wrath of a demanding child who threatening to move beyond tantrums and actually start breaking things.

The rational alternative is a deal with enough cuts to satisfy a majority of Republicans and enough revenue to win over a sufficient number of House Democrats to make up for tea partiers who’ll never support a debt limit increase. If Boehner reasserts himself, that’s probably where things will go.

Here’s the worrisome scenario: Cantor takes every domestic spending cut that was discussed as part of the negotiations with Vice President Joe Biden, declares that the administration has blessed them, and packages them together for a vote.

Never mind that Cantor walked out of the talks before there was serious negotiation about defense cuts and revenues, and thus no real agreement. Cantor, who needs to embarrass the Democrats and pull Obama down from the commanding heights, was shrewd to get the administration talking early about cuts in domestic spending and to put a lot of its cards on the table. He can now play those cards against Obama by forcing the president to reject reductions he had once considered when a larger agreement looked possible.

This might look like a political game. But at this stage, House Republicans can’t afford to end this whole sorry episode with a whimper. The bang they are looking for could yet cause a lot of collateral damage.

And, if in the end Cantor and the tea party resort to just that kind of bomb-throwing, it won’t be their fault, but ours. "Look what you made us do," will more or less be their rhetorical cry: Look what you made us do by not giving us what we wanted when we wanted it.

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