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Michael Gerson: The conversation

BY MICHAEL GERSON Published: December 12, 2012

Republicans have begun to realize their poor negotiating position. House leaders are considering a variety of approaches that would move rates up marginally on the wealthy, perhaps to 37 percent, while postponing the spending battle until the debt limit debate in March, or even until 2014. While this would be a GOP loss, at least Republicans would be taking matters into their own hands.

Potential lost opportunity

There is a political problem at the heart of the budget debate. If Democrats get what they want — tax-rate increases on the wealthy — they can crow about it in public. If Republicans get what they want — structural reductions in entitlement spending — they are unable to crow. Their motivation is fiscal and ideological, not political.

Despite Rep. Paul Ryan's best efforts, entitlement reform is not yet a popular, bottom-up political movement. It won't happen unless the president leads — providing cover for the political class to move together. Democrats must be dragged into it. Republicans must be constantly reassured they aren't being herded toward political slaughter. But Obama doesn't seem particularly interested in this project. He talks about a “balanced approach” but focuses almost entirely on tax-rate increases that would fill about 7 percent of the deficit hole.

The failure to secure a grand bargain — either by design or through incompetence — would be a lost opportunity for the country and the president himself. Putting the budget on a sustainable path, then moving on to pass immigration reform, would be historic achievements of the first order. But Obama must suddenly find the skill to squeeze the political system without breaking it to pieces.