Republicans may have forfeited debt debate for the presidency

To some degree, we all share the intuition that we should seek balance and avoid extremes in our lives. Aristotle aptly called this the eternal quest for the “golden mean.”

Today, the fight over how to resolve the debt and deficit problem relates precisely to this point. Thus far the debate has been rhetorically framed by the following question: should we seek an extreme or a balanced approach? In concrete terms, the central point of contention is whether there should be a reasonable ratio of three to one in spending cuts to tax increases, or simply draconian cuts without any revenue enhancements?

Interestingly, while few were paying attention to the language, Republicans have voluntarily ceded what are undoubtedly skewed terms. With the debate having been shrewdly framed by Democrats as a choice between a moderate and a radical solution, analogous to that of a grown-up and child, one would rightly expect Republicans to reject this premise. That is, deny that their solution is radical, as they have clearly been placed in a disadvantaged position. Mysteriously, however, this has not occurred.

One could argue that the reluctance by Republicans to deny out of hand the notion that their solution is truly “radical,” in turn, reveals something crucial about the party’s current constituency. Namely, that it is lead by extremists, or those on the fringe who demand radical solutions to today’s problems.

But this line of thought represents just mere speculation. What if there was a subtler ploy here? Specifically, could the Republican partly have, without anyone noticing, written off the debt debate as a loss?

By accepting the characterization as radicals, a description not typically sought in national politics, perhaps their bizarre behavior relates to their primary objective: the presidency.

Going out on the limb here, it is possible that Republicans intend to propose that we have gotten so far off course that moderate, time-tested solutions will no longer do.

In other words, they could seek to frame the upcoming 2012 election as one of those rare moments in history where only the party who is willing to offer up extreme solutions can successfully turn things around and get the economy moving again.

With this odd thought in mind, Republican behavior in the debt-ceiling negotiations starts to make more sense: later on they can point back and say, “See, we tried to do something radical, but President Obama simply refused.” If true, then the Democrats may have won only a pyrrhic victory in the debt debate.

The gamble Republicans would be making is that our ordinary intuition towards balance does not apply in 2012. The basic rationale here being that the slow economic recovery and high level of unemployment both merits and demands a uniquely radical solution. Alas, the famous proverb “desperate times call for desperate measures” ought to ring a bell.

With both parties having placed their bets, the stage has been set for 2012 as a sharp contrast between the status quo (the current administration) and the extreme (the Republican party). There is an aphorism that winning the battle is not the same as winning the war. Having seemingly come out ahead on the debt-ceiling debate, the key question is whether Democrats can win both.

Brit Moller is a UC Berkeley alumnus.