I was talking with former Brown University political science professor Darrell West a few days back when hopes for a grand debt-limit deal, if dimming, were still alive. He offered, perhaps, the best explanantion I'd heard to date for Washington's failure to go big. And now, with the capital's ambitions shrinking by the day, that explanation seems even more insightful.
West, now with the Brookings Institution, said it would come down to this: Democrats and Republicans are ultimately too wedded to their 2012 campaign slogans - GOP: "the Democrats want to raise your taxes in a recession"; Dems: "the Republicans will end Medicare as you know it" - to craft any sort of deal that will spoil them.
Expect a de minimis deal, he said, with the battle deferred to next November.
That seems the most likely outcome in the next few days. And it's disappointing, for two reasons: 1) it's another reminder of Washington's inability to rise above the base motivations of politics and accomplish something real; 2) it's hard to see how a shift in the composition of Congress really alters the dynamic in Washington. You think the GOP rank-and-file doesn't want to negotiate with Obama now? Just wait until they have a hold on both houses of Congress. And in the unlikely event that the Dems take hold of both chambers, they'll likely feel emboldened to stand up to a president they felt was giving away too much.
But that's the big picture. If we're going to look at it through a strictly political lens, I would argue - as I have before - that foregoing a grand deal looks like a miscalculation on the GOP's part.
Yes, Republicans can argue next year that the Democrats wanted to raise taxes. But the Dems will be able to say the proposed hike was for oil companies and rich guys and part of a "balanced approach," including heavy spending cuts, that a wild-eyed, Tea Party-fueled Republican Party rejected.
The Democrats' "end Medicare as we know it" message, by contrast, will be tougher for Republicans to shoot down.
Indeed, the GOP's best chance to scotch that message was a grand budget deal, including bipartisan reform to Medicare and Social Security.