Easy way or hard way?

There is a simple way to look at the debt ceiling negotiations: we can do this the easy way, or we can do this the hard way.

First, the Congressional Budget Office projects federal spending to be about $46 trillion over the next decade. What the House Republicans asked for is spending cuts to be the same as the increase in the debt ceiling, or about $2.4 T.  That is, all the Republicans want is a 5.2% reduction in projected spending.

Even that is not a true cut, but merely a mildly slower rate of increase. Without the Republican proposed "cut," federal spending would go up about 4.6% per year. With the "cut," spending would go up about 4.0% per year. That is the hell that would be life under Republican budgets: annual increases of only 4.0% instead of 4.6%.

But if the debt ceiling is not raised, federal spending could only be as much as federal revenues. For the next couple of months that would mean cuts of about 44% in planned spending. For 2012, it would mean cuts of about 30% of planned spending. Immediate cuts of that magnitude would be tough to take.

And with that we have what should be the Republican talking point:

We can cut 5% the easy way, or 40% the hard way. We're voting for 'easy' in the House. It's up to you now.

That seems clear enough to me, and ought to be a reasonably easy sell to the public -- the same public that Republican leadership seems so scared of scaring.

It also means that Republicans should stop acting like failure to raise the ceiling would mean certain death. If they rule that out, how on earth can they expect to win anything in negotiations? Right now, Republicans are acting like a guy who walks onto the used car lot and says to the salesman, "I'm going to buy this car no matter what, but could you come down on price a little?"

Imitate the Great Negotiator, Ronald Reagan. (Before he was President of the US and negotiating with the Soviets, he was president of a union: the Screen Actors Guild.) You must be willing to just say, "No." If your position is so weak that you can't walk away from the negotiating table, you've already lost.