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In Politics of the Debt, Nobody Is Winning

With all the talk of punting and passing when it comes to lifting the nation’s debt ceiling, it’s pretty clear no one wants to own the deficit debate in 2012. But if polling is any indication, everyone just might.

Both sides are attempting to steer the crisis in their political favor, with President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election prospects and control of Congress on the line.

Republicans believe they can win the messaging wars if they focus on jobs, one reason they will work the unemployment rate into most of the fiery debate on the Hill about this unrelated issue.

Republican strategist David Winston, who advises GOP leadership, said voters will continue to hear Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) ask, “Where are the jobs?”

“They should evaluate how do they take this particular situation and put it in the context of what it’s going to do to the economy and jobs,” Winston told Roll Call.

For their part, Democrats want to paint the Republicans as uncompromising and beholden to millionaires and anti-tax stalwarts such as Grover Norquist.

Polls suggest the Democratic messaging is working — an ABC News/Washington Post survey released last week found that 67 percent of voters said Republicans are “looking out for the interests of large business corporations.”

“Whatever advantage they had in 2010 on spending and debt issues, the way they’ve handled this has evaporated that,” one Democratic strategist said.

Whether voters will pay any attention is another matter entirely.

Multiple polls show strong majorities of voters don’t like how any of the players have dealt with the crisis, with the GOP taking the hardest hit. With no real compromise brokered and spats continuing up and down Pennsylvania Avenue, those figures are likely to climb before it’s over.

As both parties try to capitalize on the intensity of the moment, Boehner has emerged as the latest boogeyman for Democratic messaging.

Within 84 minutes of Boehner bailing on debt talks for the second time, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was out with a harsh fundraising email calling the Speaker a quitter.

“It’s now clearer than ever that Republicans won’t say yes to anything and would rather see our economy fall into catastrophic default than offend Grover Norquist and the Tea Party fringe by asking billionaires to pay their fair share,” the DCCC’s Robby Mook wrote. He suggested Boehner was protecting “tax breaks for big oil companies and his billionaire jet-owning friends,” messages that Democrats have found resonate with independent voters.

The DCCC followed that up Saturday morning with robocalls in 60 GOP-held districts, tying each Member to Boehner and saying the two Republicans “would rather our economy default” than raise taxes. Democrats must win at least 24 seats to regain control of the House.

White House press secretary Jay Carney tweeted Monday that it is “indefensible” that Boehner “walked away twice from fair deals backed by the public,” saying the House GOP “risks our economy by refusing to compromise.”

Asked about political fallout from the intense negotiations, Boehner spokesman Michael Steel blamed the Democrats for offering “no plan” to take on the nation’s challenge. He also insisted his boss did not “walk away” from the discussions. “The president asked for tax hikes that were unacceptable because they would destroy jobs,” Steel said. “The president walked away from the potential of a bipartisan plan.”

Boehner has said the president is just interested in winning a second term, given that Obama said his “only bottom line” is extending the debt ceiling “through the next election, into 2013.”

White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer took to the White House blog to smack back, noting that the GOP just a few weeks ago opposed a short-term increase.

Sources told Roll Call that the message the president has communicated behind closed doors is that increasing the debt ceiling will be a hard vote for Members of both parties. His idea? Let’s make it one tough vote that actually does something.

A CBS News poll showed 43 percent approved of Obama’s handling of the debt ceiling, while just 31 percent approved of how Congressional Democrats have behaved and only 21 percent approved of Republicans’ handling of the negotiations.

Winston’s advice to Republicans is not to worry too much about polls assessing a temporary situation before a compromise is finalized, and he said the nation’s voters are taking a longer view. “Is the public happy about the fact that it had to come down to getting this close? My sense is they would have preferred not to get it to this moment, but the important part is, what is the result?”

The White House is keenly aware the president looks like a problem solver when Democrats aren’t afraid to complain that he’s compromising too much with the GOP. Obama has mentioned often in speeches over the past few weeks that his own party isn’t happy with him.

Aides made sure to repeatedly highlight that Boehner did not return two calls from the president on Thursday and Friday.

Of course, Obama isn’t running against Boehner next fall.

Operatives in Chicago are closely watching the GOP presidential field and are taking a longer-term view of debt ceiling politics. They figure it can’t hurt to keep Obama talking about fat cats enjoying tax breaks, but they also want to highlight the Republicans’ support for House-approved plans that dramatically cut Medicare.

Democrats familiar with the campaign have been keeping tabs on which contenders back House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) “road map” plan and the Cut, Cap and Balance deal favored by the House GOP. They believe Obama will be able to successfully run against those proposals.

Sources close to Obama in both Washington, D.C., and Chicago said voters can expect to hear a lot more of the talking points about compromise that the president used during a town hall in Maryland on Friday. He said that voters expect solutions from Washington and that lawmakers should avoid using this debate to score political points.

Monday night Obama went a bit further, saying that Americans are rightly “offended” by a partisan environment where “compromise” is a “dirty word.” He delivered a line voters are likely to hear again: “The American people may have voted for divided government, but they didn’t vote for a dysfunctional government.”

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