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GOP wants Obama's unconditional surrender

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
  • David Frum: Republicans are taking an unyielding stance on debt talks
  • He says Obama has floated ideas for significant cutbacks in government spending
  • Frum says Republicans are threatening to repeat their mistake on health care
  • He says GOP could wind up getting nothing it has sought

Editor's note: David Frum writes a weekly column for A special assistant to President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2002, he is the author of six books, including "Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again," and is the editor of FrumForum.

Washington (CNN) -- In this debt-ceiling fight, I'm having horrible flashbacks to the Republican debacle over health care.

Then as now, what could have been a negotiated deal turned into all-out political war.

Then as now, Republicans rejected all concessions by the president as pathetically inadequate.

Then as now, Republicans refused any concessions of their own, instead demanding that the president yield totally to their way of thinking.

Then as now, Republicans convinced themselves that they had the clout to force the president to yield.

With health care, Republicans calculated spectacularly wrong. They pursued an all or nothing strategy and got -- nothing. They neither shaped the bill, nor did they stop it.

Will they make the same mistake again on the debt ceiling?

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We don't know the exact shape of the offers President Obama has made inside the negotiating rooms. Republicans tell friendly journalists that the president has been highhanded and long-winded.


But the president has gone on television to declare himself willing to consider some startling moves: alterations to Social Security cost-of-living formulas, raising the age at which retirees qualify for Medicare, and large dollar figures for deficit reduction over the next decade.

Dealing with the debt talks
The party that asked for everything is on its way to becoming the party that got nothing.
--David Frum

On background, administration briefers have talked about a package consisting of 85% spending cuts and 15% revenue increases. And, they said, they wanted only the kinds of revenue increases least obnoxious to Republicans: changes in deductions and tax credits -- not increases in overall tax rates.

Republican briefers say that the Democrats are exaggerating their offer. They say the Democrats were less conciliatory inside the room than outside.

Again: perhaps.

But it would be remarkable, wouldn't it, for a president to say on TV that he was willing to do something as unpopular as raise the Medicare age -- and then say in secret: Nah, I'll do the popular thing instead. Wouldn't you expect the behavior to be the other way around?

I think we have enough information to draw a very different picture of what happened.

Obama offered Republicans a lot of spending cuts if only they would move even slightly to meet him. But Republicans took the view that any change in current tax rules must be offset by an equal or greater cut in some other tax. Republicans would not agree to alter even the silliest parts of the tax code in ways that raised more revenue. The only deal they would contemplate is one that was 100% spending cuts, 0% tax increases -- that is, all their own way, total surrender by the president.

Unconditional surrender was the Republican demand in the health care debate. That demand led to an unmitigated defeat.

Unconditional surrender has become the Republican demand in the debt demand.

The original Republican plan was to threaten to tip the country into default unless the GOP got everything it wanted. That threat is proving empty, as Republicans' business constituencies mutiny against their party's dangerous tactics.

If blackmail won't work -- and negotiation is not allowed by the party's own taboos -- then the party that asked for everything is on its way to becoming the party that got nothing. Only it's not just the GOP that is the loser. It's the whole country.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Frum.

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