I think it’s worth briefly following the train of thought of Felix Salmon and asking how in the hell we got to a place where trillions in deficit reduction, with trillions more potentially offered in a extra-legislative process, represents the leftward pole of this debate:

The lion’s share of the blame here belongs with the Republicans in general, the House Republicans in particular, and the Tea Party caucus within the House Republicans most of all. But it’s not like these people’s existence or intransigence was any great secret. And so the White House tactics over the course of the past few months look dangerously naive [...]

The budget debate, of course, sets near-term taxation and spending. So seeking to make a virtue out of necessity, Treasury entered negotiations over the debt ceiling to do something longer-term: to put in place a decade-long “fiscal straitjacket” which would constrain future Democratic and Republican administrations alike. That would address the Krugman point, and help to cement — rather than weaken — America’s triple-A credit rating.

As things turned out, of course, Treasury’s bright idea backfired catastrophically. Far from putting the US on a course of long-term fiscal prudence, it put the country on a log raft with no paddle, careening straight towards a deathly waterfall. In hindsight, attempting to engage the House Republicans on long-term fiscal issues was a silly idea — these are people who think you can raise revenues by cutting taxes. A fiscal straitjacket, necessarily, involves some mechanism for raising taxes; since that was always going to be anathema to the Republicans, there was no point even trying to construct one.

Naive is one word you can use, but I don’t think it’s quite right. Somebody had to raise the flag on Treasury attempting a long-term deficit solution – in the middle of a jobs crisis – and that responsibility lies with the President. Elizabeth Drew has an article for the New York Review of Books which claims that the President wanted to change his image to a purveyor of fiscal rectitude in time for the 2012 election. He was playing for the votes of a handful of swing voters and independents in key battleground states rather than doing anything of value for the country. And in the end, what he actually put on the table and proposed would have done something far from valuable – it would have actively hurt millions, caught in the wake of this monomaniacal pursuit of a deal. Jonathan Cohn has the full rundown, but Paul Krugman picks out a portion, the effort to raise the Medicare eligibility age.

Let’s recall how the health care debate went. Progressive reformers, myself included, would very much have preferred a simple single-payer system — Medicare for all. And there’s a reason: Medicare has lower costs than private insurance, and it’s also a much better vehicle for cost control. Also, the simplicity — if you’re a citizen, you’re covered — makes it much less likely that people will fall through the cracks.

Most of us were willing, however, to accept the Rube Goldberg scheme actually passed — in which community rating, a mandate, and subsidies are combined to more or less simulate the effects of single-payer — as much better than nothing. If political reality dictated that health care be directed through private insurance companies, even though this made no sense in policy terms, well, that was a price we were willing to pay.

But it’s quite something else to take people who are currently being covered by a rational single-payer system, and force them back into the inefficient, parasitic world of private insurance. That’s terrible. And it’s also politically stupid: if you think for a minute that Republicans wouldn’t turn right around and run ads about how Obama is taking away your Medicare, you’ve been living under a rock.

Krugman expanded on this idea in his column today.

You have Republicans like Bruce Bartlett calling Obama the Democratic version of Richard Nixon, who was similarly off the reservation of his own party base’s beliefs. You have neoclassical economists like Jeffrey Sachs rhetorically turning over all the furniture and lashing out at the corruption of the Democratic Party, calling for an independent Presidential effort.

I don’t think the President is a weak negotiator. He wants different things from the people who elected him. And people are beginning to see that. There was no reason to yoke deficit reduction to the debt limit, building a doomsday device that could blow up in the country’s face. Obama had to make that decision, or at least accede to the Republican request. He wanted a grand bargain to “take deficits off the table” and burnish his image. He was willing to compromise plenty to do that, enough so it confused the entire notion of what was a compromise and what was a belief.

I’ll let Digby have the last word:

The president seems to see these things as abstractions: the poor give something and the rich give something and that will make it even-steven and everyone will share equally in the pain. That might sound fine if you’re talking to children, but adults surely know that the wealthy will feel no real pain from being asked to give up a slightly higher percentage of the wealth that’s being taxed now at historically low rates. And the elderly and disabled and children who will be sacrificing their benefits in “exchange” for that can’t work. How are they supposed to make up the difference? (This is where the catfood metaphor comes from.)

Look, I get that he thinks it would be great to tick off a bunch of items on the list of problems and say they were all solved through a a “balanced approach.” That’s his brand now and it works for him. But there are reasons this is so tough — the two parties have different constituencies to serve and different ideas of what’s necessary to solve them — or at least they used to. And even more importantly, it’s obvious that the Republicans are more right wing than they ever have been and are less likely to agree to anything reasonable than they ever have been before. So the idea that this, of all times, is the right time to do a Grand Bargain is the original error, as we can see by the current negotiations. His vision doesn’t fit the time or the circumstances and he hasn’t changed course [...]

And sadly, even if the deal never materializes, by putting these drastic cuts on the table they are going to become the centrist and conservative baseline going forward. After all, “even the liberal Democrat Barack Obama thought this needed to be done.” I had not heard anything about raising the age of Medicare eligibility before this debate and now it’s everywhere, pushed by the White House and by the health care technocrats who think that everyone should be thrilled to get into the untested Rube Goldberg health care program as soon as they can buy their way in.(If they can afford it.)

In that sense, the past six months will be irreparably damaging even if it all somehow, by some miracle, works out.