Compromise is often an unhappily revealing art. "Ideals may tell us something important about what we would like to be. But compromises tell us who we are," the philosopher Avishai Margalit writes. In finding compromises with Republicans on the federal budget, Democrats need to remember not only who they are but who the voters depend on them to be.
From that standpoint, the start of the budget battle in early April did not go well. Acceding to Republican demands for cuts in Social Security and Medicare, the president's budget left his party open to a cynical but predictable response. Without the least acknowledgment of a contradiction, the chairman of the House Republicans' campaign arm, Representative Greg Walden, immediately went on television to denounce Barack Obama's "shocking attack on seniors."
We've seen it before. Many of the House Republicans who voted in 2008 for the bank bailouts called for by the Bush administration denounced the bailouts in the 2010 election as if they had nothing to do with them. In 2012, Paul Ryan and other Republicans campaigned against the $700 billion in Medicare cuts in "Obamacare" as if the Ryan budget adopted by House Republicans did not include the same cuts-and without acknowledging that the Affordable Care Act included compensating measures that improved seniors' Medicare benefits.
The two major parties today don't just have ideological differences; they don't observe the same rules of public accountability. The Democrats have no choice but to accept responsibility; they hold the presidency, and they believe in making government work. The Republicans do not share that commitment, and they are now unrestrained by executive obligations or by moderates in their own ranks. So they put politics before governing and have made bad faith in negotiations standard practice.
Yet anticipating bad faith from the Republicans does not free Obama from the need to advance compromises. The GOP will likely control the House throughout the president's term; Obama has to do business with people who cannot be trusted to own up to their side of a deal. He has to identify budgetary savings and make political concessions that nonetheless demonstrate fidelity to long-standing commitments and principles.
For both substantive and political reasons, I believe that means drawing a sharp line between Social Security and Medicare. Social Security should never have been part of the budget negotiations; its benefits are not excessive, they are crucial to the living standards of both poor and middle-income seniors, and they are not a factor in the federal deficit. The "chained" consumer price index (CPI) endorsed by Obama is a real cut even with the bump in benefits proposed for low-income seniors at age 76 and after; indeed, the bump effectively concedes that the chained CPI is not, in fact, a more accurate cost-of-living adjustment--it's a diet COLA. …