The White House made the first formal move last week in the ongoing fiscal talks, presenting congressional Republicans with a substantive, detailed plan. GOP leaders, not surprisingly, hated it -- President Obama's proposal met the goals Republicans laid out, but did so in a way they found offensive.
What striking, though, is the extent to which the congressional GOP leadership seems absolutely stunned by the White House's opening bid.
[House Speaker John Boehner] said the reason negotiations are going so poorly is that Obama administration officials -- in particular, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner -- aren't taking Republicans seriously. Boehner said he was shocked at Geithner's proposal to Republicans last week."I was flabbergasted. I looked at him and I said, 'You can't be serious.' I've just never seen anything like it," Boehner said.
If Boehner has "never seen anything like" Obama's debt-reduction plan, the House Speaker probably needs to do more to keep up with current events. There's nothing in Obama's plan that (a) wasn't already included in the president's previous budgets; (b) wasn't part of his 2012 re-election platform; or (c) both. The president's opening gambit was bold, but there wasn't anything that new in the proposal.
So why in the world are Republicans looking for the fainting couch? Why did Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) reportedly "burst into laughter" after hearing the White House offer? Because GOP congressional leaders thought they'd established certain unwritten rules for how this game is supposed to be played -- and Obama is choosing to ignore them, leaving Republicans flummoxed and stunned.
The New York Times reports today that the president is "scarred by failed negotiations in his first term and emboldened by a clear if close election to a second, has emerged as a different kind of negotiator." Throughout his first term, Obama "repeatedly offered what he considered compromises on stimulus spending, health care and deficit reduction to Republicans, who either rejected them as inadequate or pocketed them and insisted on more."
So, this time, the president presented a plan that met his own standards, and challenged GOP leaders to do the same. Apparently, Republicans didn't see this coming, leaving them, in Boehner's word, flabbergasted.
But as E.J. Dionne Jr. explained, an "entirely new political narrative is taking shape before our eyes."
[W]hy was anyone surprised that Obama's initial offer to the Republicans was a compendium of what he'd actually prefer? We became so accustomed to Obama's earlier habit of making preemptive concessions that the very idea he'd negotiate in a perfectly normal way amazed much of Washington. Rule No. 1 is that you shouldn't start bargaining by giving stuff away when the other side has not even made concrete demands. [...][A] normal negotiation looks strange only because the past two years have been so utterly abnormal, driven by tea party extremism and an irrational hostility to Obama, a fundamentally moderate man who has already shown a willingness to offer more than his share of concessions.
Under the rules Boehner and McConnell drew up last year, Republicans are supposed to tell the president, "Make us happy," and Obama is supposed to keep offering conservative ideas in the hopes of guessing what they'll find satisfactory.
The sooner GOP leaders realize the rules have changed, the easier it will be to find a resolution to the current impasse.