by Jonathan Rauch

The papers are full of tick-tocks on the collapse of the Boehner-Obama grand budget bargain. Here's the Post…and the Times. What has happened here is sad but not surprising.

Boehner wanted to do something big, a $4 trillion dollar deal which would include both tax increases (presented as tax reforms) and reductions in entitlements (Social Security and Medicare). But his caucus wouldn't support it. They will not vote for anything which includes higher taxes, on the simple, if absurd, principle that any given level of taxation is already too high. This is completely consistent with what Tea Party activists have told me again and again: there is no reduction in spending, however large or significant, which is worth any increase in taxes.

A grand bargain would serve the country well. The alternative, a series of stop-and-go incremental deficit reduction packages, each accompanied by bloody political combat, is not as good. And note, please, that failure to do the deal carries a price, which is to re-electrify the third rail of entitlement cuts.

Back in the mid-1980s, some Republican Senators, led by Bob Dole, tried to strike a grand bargain in which Social Security would get chopped. Instead of grabbing the opportunity, President Reagan and House Speaker Tip O'Neill, a liberal Democrat, put a knife in Dole's back by agreeing to a smaller deal in which Social Security was off limits and the deficit can was kicked down the road. That brought a sigh of relief to incumbents in both parties, but Social Security has remained off limits ever since.

Fast forward to right now. Democrats want tax increases, Republicans want Medicare cuts. The two sides can trade hostages, neutralizing their best attack ads in exchange for a big whack at the deficit. Or they can shoot their hostages, hammer each other in 2012 for raising taxes and killing grandma, and risk spiralling debt. They're doing the latter.  The risk is that the 2012 campaign will put Medicare off limits for years. Call your office, Sen. Dole.

I think blame rests primarily with the Republican side, because I think that a critical mass of congressional Democrats would have squawked and squirmed but would, in the end, have voted for a grand bargain—whereas Tea Partyized Republicans just would not. But let's not kid ourselves: what we're seeing here is a result of the systematic underrepresentation of moderates in both parties, because moderates are the constituency for a hostage trade: they would rather solve the problem than stay pure and score political points. If you want bold solutions, vote for the least radical candidate in your party's congressional primary next year.