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How Obama and the Democrats Are Reclaiming the Debt Issue

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Talking Points Memo had a clever meme going this weekend, in which they counted the number of days since the House Republican caucus took office and began holding the White House hostage over debt ceiling negotiations. (Sunday, for example, was Day 188.)

Though convenient, the "Republicans-as-hostage-takers" lens obscures the extent to which Obama and congressional Democrats have succeeded in co-opting the debt limit narrative. Back when Treasury Department officials requested Congress raise the debt ceiling in early April, Republicans were the ones scoring political points. When Josh Marshall summed up the situation on July 1, the conversation had devolved into "a series of tactical retreats [by the President and his Congressional allies] with no clear stated limit on how much they'll concede." Republicans kept demanding more, as Democrats searched for ever more novel ways to compromise.

For the Washington press corps, the worm began to turn last Tuesday. That was the day David Brooks suggested, in his New York Times column, that refusing "trillions of dollars in spending cuts in exchange for a few hundred million dollars of revenue increases" meant that Republicans may now be "more of a psychological protest than a practical, governing alternative."

Though Brooks writes for a predominantly progressive audience, this message reverberated through the GOP caucuses. Reporters were now empowered to ask Republicans, citing Brooks, whether or not their party was acting rationally. House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and NRSC Head Sen. Jon Cornyn (R-Tx.) were both confronted with questions about Brooks's column during their press briefing on Tuesday. Elsewhere, CNN's Christine Romans pressed Sen. Jim DeMint about the potential consequences of Republican "fanaticism."

Even without Brooks's help, however, Democrats had begun to seize the initiative. It was President Obama, not Speaker of the House John Boehner, who was able to look courageous by offering to dice his party's sacred cows. Senate Democrats, meanwhile, are already offering a program of cuts that may be more palatable to voters. On Friday, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (R-ND) briefed the White House on a plan being drafted by senators that would still trim $4 trillion from the deficit while leaving Social Security alone and making only slight cuts to health programs.

If the Senate plan -- which would raise tax rates for individuals earning more than $500,000 and families earning more than $1 million; would lop $900 million off the Pentagon budget; and would produce interest savings of nearly $600 billion through reduced borrowing -- proves to have legs, it could very well dominate the national conversation going forward. Polling routinely shows voters are broadly opposed to entitlement cuts. The most recent evidence, a Pew Research Center poll released last Thursday, found that about three of every five respondents said they wanted to maintain Social Security and Medicare benefits. Only 32 percent of those polled considered reducing the budget deficit a greater priority.

Speaker Boehner conceded on Friday that not raising the debt limit would place the economy in jeopardy and risk jobs. But it was his announcement late Saturday night that he was pulling out of talks for a "grand bargain" that would cut the deficit by $4 trillion over the next decade that may have completed the transfer of leverage to the Democrats. Now that Boehner has declared a debt limit hike necessary, it is members of his own party who are scrambling to agree to a deal -- any deal -- so long as it doesn't raise taxes. While Boehner began to squirm, the White House continued on offense, telling the New York Times they still plan to pursue "the boldest package possible." In his Monday press conference, Obama advanced the ball further, telling reporters: "I have been hearing from our Republican friends that it's a moral imperative for us to tackle our debates and deficits in a serious way. So what I've said to them is let's go. It is possible for us to construct a package to involve both parties to take on their sacred cows."

There is still more than enough time, of course, for Democrats to muck things up. It would certainly not be the first time they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. But even if they can't reach that magic $4 trillion number, Obama and the Democrats may have already claimed the moral high ground and defused the deficit as a major 2012 campaign issue. Because of the events of the past week, it may be the eventual GOP candidate who will have to answer for the party's inflexible stand on taxes. Suddenly, Democrats are the ones ready to talk publicly about how to reduce the national debt -- and Republicans who might be forced to begin ducking the issue.