Here are translations of Sunday TV-interview show and other statements by the principals regarding a pre-Aug. 2 deal to lift the federal debt ceiling.
•"We will not accept tax increases as part of a deal": This Republican rallying cry needs to be read closely. Previously the formulation has been "We will not accept tax-rate increases," which would leave room for revenue-producing eliminations of corporate and personal tax breaks and subsidies without calling them tax increases. On or about Aug. 2 we should expect Republicans to declare victory when rates are left alone but when revenues are raised from elimination of such "tax expenditures" and when some fees are increased.
•"We will not accept cuts in Medicare and Social Security which hurt senior citizens": This marching song has been used historically by Democrats. The next lyrics say that "Republicans want to destroy Medicare and Social Security." President Clinton used this effectively in his 1996 reelection campaign when he accused Republican candidate Bob Dole of wanting to take those entitlement programs away from senior citizens. Fact is, these programs are the biggest source of federal deficit spending and must be addressed. Expect Democrats to accept "reforms" in them — having to do with inflation adjustments, eligibility ages, lifting of the Fed/FICA income cap on money for Social Security and Medicare, and so on — but which will not apply to any American presently over 55 and not kick in for a year or two.
• "The rich must pay a fairer share of taxes": Republicans probably will not accept rate increases on upper-income taxpayers but they could swallow corporate tax increases and elimination of some deductions benefiting top-rate taxpayers. Both sides are playing games here. Fact is, upper-income taxpayers already provide the largest share of federal tax revenues. Almost 50 percent of Americans (mainly the poor and working poor) pay no taxes. But ways will be found, whether called tax increases or not, to extract more revenues from President Obama's famous "over $250,000 per year" earners. They can afford it.
• "You should not raise taxes in a recession," and "We need more spending to stimulate growth": These are companion statements by Republicans and Democrats to justify their favorite objectives, respectively, of cutting taxes and raising spending. Take your pick.
• "We need specific target dates and plans to reduce federal debt": These can be produced easily because they will not be binding
and will be left to future presidents and Congresses to implement. Especially strong language can be expected in support of such measures — as if they proved the seriousness of negotiators' resolve.
Lest we become too cynical about the ongoing exercise, we should remember that the public agenda and public dialogue have changed dramatically in a relatively short time, with Democrats, Republicans, and independents all stressing their dedication to long-term federal debt reduction. Just enough will be done Aug. 2 to create a generalized impression of bipartisan cooperation toward that goal without doing anything painful or dramatic prior to 2012 national elections.
By the way, the Aug. 2 deadline to lift the debt ceiling has some give to it. Various devices can be found to extend it by several days. The European Union, in similar situations, has found it convenient to "stop the clock" and keep negotiating well beyond nominal deadlines. If it is Aug. 6, for instance, but the clock has been stopped at midnight Aug. 2, who is to say that it is still not Aug. 2?
We're in for some rough and unruly political brawling over the next two weeks. But something in the end will be agreed upon.