WASHINGTON — In order for an ambitious budget deal to emerge, an awkward conversation must take place. House Speaker John Boehner needs to tell President Obama: “I can give some on rates for the wealthy, but I need cover on serious, structural cuts in entitlement programs.”
The call would be Boehner's. But the groundwork for that conversation must be laid by the president. And Obama has been actively making it harder for Boehner to cry uncle. Obama's initial budget offer was a calculated insult, involving, by some accounts, an actual spending increase. He has demanded unlimited debt ceiling increases — a constitutional innovation of Mohamed Morsi-like ambition. And Obama has been in full, anti-Republican campaign mode around the country, as if the election had never ended.
The president has cultivated an atmosphere of distrust, in a relationship with a House speaker never characterized by trust. The moment Boehner concedes on rates, Republicans fear a leak and a Democratic victory dance, before any serious outcome on spending cuts can be locked in.
Part of the art of the deal is giving your opponent a soft place to land. Seeing no soft places, Republicans are increasingly concluding that Obama doesn't want a deal.
This is not the only possible interpretation of these events. Obama could be a ruthless negotiator, trying to squeeze every possible concession out of Republicans before agreeing to their last offer at the last minute. He could also be an unskilled negotiator who misjudges his opponents, overreaches wildly and backs unintentionally off the cliff.
But in any case, Obama has a higher tolerance for cliff-diving than Republican leaders, which gives the president a negotiating advantage. The Democratic left is perfectly comfortable with most consequences of the cliff. As the weeks of pain go by, political pressure might grow so heavy on the GOP that Obama could essentially dictate terms — whatever mix of tax increases, tax cuts and spending he wishes.
The risk of this strategy is serious — market panic, credit downgrade and recession. The political reward for Democrats might also be considerable: marginalization of the GOP based on a 3-point presidential victory.