The seemingly endless series of budget showdowns that have characterized the last two years has a lot of people frustrated, and understandably so. But I think it’s a mistake to attribute that pattern to a failure to seriously bargain, as many critics suggest. It is in fact the only plausible outcome of bargaining given our increasingly problematic fiscal situation. A lasting bargain — a middle-ground deal that provides a solution that endures for many years, of the sort reached in the 80s and 90s — is not really going to be possible in this situation. And the frustration about this has to do with a failure to grasp just what our situation is, and just how different the goals of the two parties are at this point.
It is true, as the self-declared sober moderates among the talking heads remind us, that there is a kind of middle ground between what the two parties are asking for. That instinct is in fact where the so-called “Bowles proposal” that John Boehner offered the president on Monday came from. At a November 1, 2011, hearing of the supercommittee (you can find the transcript archived here, the text quoted below starts on page 50), Erskine Bowles asked for some time to present an idea.