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Huge gap in how Democrats, Republicans define 'compromise'

By Gloria Borger, CNN Senior Political Analyst
  • Gloria Borger: Incoming speaker knows GOP isn't in mood to work much with Democrats
  • Borger: Here's a bipartisan truth: There are no more fig leafs left
  • In dream scenario, Obama offers tax deal, emphasizes deficit, and GOP agrees, Borger says

Editor's note: Gloria Borger is a senior political analyst for CNN, appearing regularly on CNN's "The Situation Room," "AC360°," "John King, USA" and "State of the Union."

(CNN) -- Everyone seems to have an opinion about whether big men should cry, given Speaker-elect John Boehner's soggy "60 Minutes" on Sunday. Just for the record: fine by me, no big deal, even a good thing.

Now that that's out of the way, there is one exchange that actually matters way more than a few tears: Boehner's refusal to let the word "compromise" pass between his lips.

It seemed odd, in a way, that Boehner treated the bland word as some sort of epithet not to be uttered in front of the children. And the endearing emotional connection he made by weeping was somehow blunted by this refusal to even acknowledge the C-word.

So what was Boehner's reasoning?

"When you say the word 'compromise' ... a lot of Americans look up and go, 'Uh-oh, they're going to sell me out,' " he told CBS' "60 Minutes." "And so finding common ground here makes more sense."

Now I get it. For Boehner, it makes more sense because it's really a matter of political survival. Why? Because there's a huge gap between how Democrats and Republicans view compromise. According to a recent Gallup Poll, 59% of Democrats think it's a good thing. As for Republicans, not so much -- 41% say their leaders should instead "stick to their beliefs."

Hence, the Boehner preference for common ground.

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Ah, but what about President Barack Obama? When the tax cut deal was struck, he headed straight for the podium to declare that a "compromise" had been reached -- and called the agreement a compromise over and over again. A bipartisan plan, he said, one that is "... not perfect, but this compromise is an essential step on the road to recovery."

And so Obama's Great Compromise was born.

We're parsing words here, but the labels give the clues to what's ahead. Boehner understands his new members aren't in the mood to work much with what's left of the Democrats; Obama understands that independent voters want him to behave as the adult. (Indeed, about 60% of them applaud the deal.)

And, by the way, for all of the yakking we've heard about Obama's angry liberal base, here's a headline from Wednesday's Washington Post poll: 87% of liberals support Obama.

And pretty soon, the moment of truth will arrive. Now that Republicans and Democrats have both spent almost $900 billion on this tax cut package, they have to figure out how to pay for it. The deal only intensifies the pressure on the president -- and the Congress -- to move to the next stage. Every economist can now argue -- and they do -- that the nation has gotten the stimulus it needs in the short term. But what about the long-term deficit?

Here's a bipartisan truth: There are no more fig leafs left.

And here's a GOP truth: The new flock wants to cut spending and the deficit, because that's what they promised they would do. Sen.-elect Rand Paul of Kentucky says he's got a package of $500 billion in cuts in his back pocket, ready to go.

Doesn't this all intensify the political argument for the White House to step forward and call their bluff? Or, better yet, offer a new paradigm: tax reform that leads to deficit reduction through the slashing of some sacrosanct tax breaks. The deficit commission managed to do it with the support of three conservative GOP senators; why not offer it to the Congress?

If compromise is a dirty word -- and common ground is just its handy, amorphous replacement -- there's got to be some new ground to be plowed.

Here's the Pollyanna dream scenario: The president offers to deal on tax reform in his State of the Union message in January. He makes it clear that reform brings with it serious deficit reduction. The GOP agrees; there is some down payment on cuts as the parties decide to avoid a showdown over raising the debt ceiling to keep the government running. They work at it it; we watch in wonder.

Then we can all have a good cry.

Or, we can wake up.

The choice is theirs.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gloria Borger.