Here’s how I see it:

  • According to Speaker Boehner, we absolutely, positively have to address the deficit and debt–even during a period of 9% unemployment and too-low investment–because, “We’re broke,” and we’ll leave a disastrous legacy to our children if we don’t. As always, won’t somebody think of the children?
  • In fact, it’s so important to address this issue that Republicans are completely willing to do things they don’t want to do, like raising marginal tax rates and taking other actions to raise more revenue. Just kidding, they think it shouldn’t even be on the table for such an important and extraordinary occasion, even though making a bipartisan deal would almost certainly have to include tax hikes of one sort or other.
  • Republicans are so, so very uncommitted to cutting the deficit that they’re unwilling to consider revoking the subsidies on the highly profitable oil and industries that are unpopular with the public. That’s right, they’re spending political capital to defend the most egregious government handouts out there (with the possible exception of agriculture subsidies). Admittedly, there’s a political element to the Democrats’ push here, and it’s not going to make much of a dent in the deficit. But if spending is so paramount, so essential, then why not just start dumping junk like this? Symbolism matters, and this tells you all you need to know.
  • Needless to say, defense spending is untouchable as well. Though, admittedly, that quote is from Mitt Romney, so it could change a few times by tomorrow.
  • That leaves, by default, the only acceptable option: to make massive cuts to entitlements. Convenient, I say! This has come to mean the Ryan Budget Plan, best known for being panned (and unpanned) by Newt Gingrich, possibly losing the GOP a special election in New York, and described by Ezra Klein as being designed to be, “completely, almost gleefully, unacceptable to Democrats.” Yes, the deficit is so important that playing partisan games with the budget and the debt ceiling automatically takes precedence over it.

Looking at this honest attempt to piece through the arguments leaves one with the conclusion that Republicans are (surprise!) lying almost completely about their commitment to cutting the deficit. Their actions are the opposite of a party wanting to seriously do it, though they correspond almost exactly with a party that wants to kill off public programs and is using its limited leverage to do what it can, or at least lay down markers. The only people who could possibly believe otherwise are people who listen only to speeches and press releases in which the deficit is addressed with solemn tones and “more in sorrow than in anger” sentimentalism, and whose understanding of politics is shallow and silly. But that aptly describes the Washington elite establishment, which explains why we are here.

Now, obviously, if you find these sorts of programs unacceptable, then the Republicans’ strategy is a pretty smart deployment of power for ideological ends. But most people don’t find them unacceptable. Regardless, if you actually want the government to come up with a plan to lower the deficit (you beautiful dreamer!), which is to say for Republicans to actually do what they promised, this is a huge (and predictable) disappointment. And if you want the government to focus on job creation, as nearly all Americans do, then you’re completely out of luck.

Let’s take another look at that generic ballot (sans Rasmussen) to see how the new House Republican majority is playing in Peoria:

That straight line is really quite dramatic. I’ll be the first person to express my frustration with the public for their lapses of attention, but they’re not fools and they’re not patient with people who can’t deliver. As Republicans desperately try to salvage the Ryan Plan and sink millions into what was supposed to be a comfortable win in upstate New York, it doesn’t even occur to them that they’ve lost the thread, and that the public is getting sick of them at an incredible rate. It is largely true that Democrats’ view of the median voter is a lot more optimistic than reality when it comes to how well engaged and informed they are. But it’s also inescapably true that Republicans’ view of the median voter is equally if not more skewed in the other direction. The last election cycle pivoted largely around the Democrats assuming that voters would see the Fox/Rush/Drudge misinformation about health care for what it was and being disappointed, and it looks like this one will pivot around Republicans assuming that the voters won’t notice that they’ve wasted time on NPR, abortion and Medicare privatization bills that were never going to pass and were never very popular, and getting a hell of a surprise on election day.

And I don’t see this dynamic changing in the short term. Thanks to the tactical brilliance of Boehner and Cantor, nearly all House Republicans are basically stuck with a vote to privatize Medicare. This means that, if they just cut Ryan’s plan loose as they were making moves to last week, the House Republican Caucus will have nowhere to turn. It’s not a matter of frosting out a few marginal members–the whole House is up for re-election, and if Democrats can play in NY-26, they can play anywhere. Republicans are stuck with this vote for good, and Democrats have been exploiting it fairly well so far. Shit, GOP elites are so desperate to keep from losing this outright that they’re at the verge of reading Newt Gingrich out of the movement, which is something I never thought would ever happen. Starbursts is writing columns attacking him and he’s as big a hack as they come, which means Newt’s off the protected list. Anyway, my question is: when the Republicans lose in 2012 (I’m guessing they lose the presidential race and the House, with something close to a tie in the Senate), where do they go next? Do we finally get that Republican civil war that we’ve been promised for decades? They won’t be able to say they lost for not cutting spending enough, like after Bush. Do we get another pseudomoderate “compassionate conservative” type in 2016? Will they walk around dazed for years like the Democrats did after 9/11? The latter might be a little wishful thinking, but just think of what could get done…

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