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Washington, we're done with high school

By Gloria Borger, CNN Senior Political Analyst
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Gloria Borger's budget battle analysis
  • Gloria Borger: Parties are sparring over why White House wasn't in on budget talks
  • She says public has no patience for juvenile spats over the budget
  • Borger: Paul Ryan's plan left out key issues such as Social Security
  • She says Obama isn't showing leadership on long-term budget questions

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."

Washington (CNN) -- If life (and politics) sometimes seems stuck in the ninth grade, the recent gyrations between the White House and congressional Republicans is a perfect case in point. The topic: averting a government shutdown. The meeting: on Capitol Hill between House GOPers and Senate Democrats.

Not invited to the party (or so they say): The White House.

I actually spent time trying to figure this out. Not exactly a lucrative reporting experience, as it turns out. Here's how each side portrayed the perceived slight:

From a senior White House adviser: Office of Management and Budget director Jack Lew asked to go to the meeting. He was turned down.

From the president: "The speaker apparently didn't want our team involved in that discussion. That's fine." (Not.)

From a top aide to House Speaker John Boehner: That's not what happened.

Of course, it doesn't really matter, except that this is no spring fling. It's about a shutdown of the federal government that a) would be stupid, self-defeating and hurtful and b) would distract attention from more important budget issues to deal with in the future.

Odds of government shutdown grow

Why not have everyone in the room? Let's get real here. "We're down to the wire," says one senior White House aide. "They're [the GOP] going to close the government down over what? A small percentage of last year's budget?"

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Exactly. But this is not to say that the angels have perched themselves on Democratic wings. Suddenly, as Democrats move to capture the political high ground (See: Obama press conference in which he played the frustrated grown-up on TV, saying this is "not a way to run a government").

They're also talking about the big, ideological budget discussions that must occur in the future. "There are going to be I think very sharply contrasting visions in terms of where we should move the country," Obama said. "That's a legitimate debate to have."

Really? So where has the president been in that debate? Mostly AWOL, so far as I can tell.

Yes, he appointed a deficit commission. But then he proceeded to pay little attention to its serious report, which provided big solutions to avoid economic disaster. It included tax increases and entitlement reform, so the president punted.

Sure, I get the politics of it. But that doesn't mean it's OK to then tell me about all of the important budget debates we need to have -- but you're unwilling to really have until sometime in the future.

Then comes the budget unveiled this week by Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee. We all know it's not going anywhere because it, too, is politically treacherous: privatizing Medicare for future retirees, among other things. That said, it's clearly going to define the domestic policy discussion into 2012. For that alone, Ryan deserves kudos.

Opinion: Republicans' high-stakes gamble

But wait. As Ronald Reagan once said in a movie, "Where's the rest of me?" Where's the tax increase side of the Ryan budget ledger? Where's the plan to reform social security? Where's the alternative plan for health care cost-cutting?

Ryan's plan may be revolutionary, but it's still got that classic no-tax GOP approach. It seems to me the budget crisis calls for everything to be up for grabs, especially the tax cuts for the wealthy.

Opinion: Ryan, the Dr. Kevorkian of Medicare

It will be all too easy, of course, for the Democrats to pounce on the Ryan Medicare plan to move to a voucher system as putting too much of a burden on seniors. After all, didn't Republicans pounce on the Democrats' "massive cuts to Medicare" (as part of health care reform) in the last election? You bet, and it worked -- with seniors, whom Democrats will be desperately trying to get back in their own camp the next time around.

So get ready for that -- and get ready for squeamish Republicans to reject the Ryan proposal, too. But how about having a better debate? How about using the Ryan document as a way to consider what dozens of budget experts (including a bipartisan group in the Senate) have said: that failure to seriously deal with the deficit is not an option. And if it has to be done before 2012, so be it.

We're not there yet. Right now, the house speaker is dealing with 87 new members whose zeal for budget-cutting exceeds their experience. The president is trying to game out constituencies for his re-election.

As for the voters, they're done with high school.

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

Watch The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer weekdays at 4pm to 6pm ET and Saturdays at 6pm ET. For the latest from The Situation Room click here.

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