Though participants made no meaningful efforts to negotiate before the elections, President Obama, House Speaker John Boehner, and others have been engaged in fiscal talks for about four weeks now -- though at this point, It's no longer clear why they're even bothering.
Boehner visited the White House yesterday for another chat with the president and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, but by all indications, everyone is just spinning their wheels. A senior administration official told the New York Times the House GOP leader "has not given on revenue and has not identified any cuts that he wants in exchange for rates." The official added that Republicans "have only moved backwards since the beginning,"
This dovetails with what Greg Sargent reported yesterday.
I spoke this morning to an official familiar with the fiscal cliff talks. He tells me that ever since Republicans rejected the first White House fiscal offer, White House negotiators have been asking Republicans to detail both the spending cuts they want and the loopholes and deductions they would close to raise revenues while avoiding a hike in tax rates for the rich.
According to the official, Republicans continue to refuse to answer. "No answer ever since the Geithner meeting," the official said. "To date they have been unwilling or able to identify a list of specific cuts or changes they would like or a single loophole they are willing to close."
Remember, it's been four weeks. If Republican leaders weren't prepared to come to the table with specific ideas and policy details a few days after the election, that's understandable. But a full month later, with the deadline looming, and with a credible White House plan already presented, all available evidence suggests GOP officials haven't even done the first page of their homework assignment.
They want spending cuts, but won't offer any details as to which ones. They'll accept new revenue, but won't say where it might come from. They want "reforms" to social-insurance programs and entitlements, but won't point to any details.
In the process, we're learning something important about how congressional Republicans think about governing.
There are different schools of thought to explain the GOP's tactics. Maybe Republican leaders are afraid the details of their wish list would be wildly unpopular with the American mainstream. Perhaps they simply lack the policy chops needed to add substantive meat to the rhetorical bones. Maybe Boehner & Co. simply prefer a process in which they tell Obama, "Try to make us happy," and the president keeps offering them concessions in the hopes of guessing what the right will find satisfactory.
It may even be some combination of all of these.
But as Paul Krugman explained yesterday, a pattern has emerged.
Remember that all the Republican budget "plans" of recent years -- very much including the Ryan plan -- have been built largely out of magic asterisks. Even the one real budget cut they've been willing to endorse specifically, savage cuts to Medicaid, involved block-granting and turning it over to states, so that they don't have to specify who, exactly, will be denied medical care. And with Obama dead set against that kind of cut, they have nothing.
We are at a strange and dangerous place in American political life.
In sports, coaches stress the importance of teams learning to do the basics. In football, players need to understand blocking and tackling before they can move on to more advanced plays. In basketball, players need to nail down passing and playing defense before they master the pick and roll or the alley-oop.
And in governing, Republicans need to understand that mutli-trillion -dollar debt-reduction packages require, as a prerequisite, some numbers on the page.