You can read Russell Berman and Sam Youngman’s version over at The Hill or Sam Stein’s more comprehensive and substantive piece at the Huffington Post. Basically, the talks at the White House this afternoon over raising the debt limit did not go well. I am not going to recount everything here. I hope you read at least Stein’s piece so you’ll know what I’m talking about.

One thing that’s becoming clear is that McConnell and Boehner have basically given up. They have no fight left in them. But the Tea Partiers in the House insist that the fight go on, so Eric Cantor has been deputized to run the negotiations. And the problem is that Eric Cantor isn’t offering anything.

You have to picture this. You have McConnell and Kyl and Reid and Durbin and Pelosi and Hoyer and Boehner, and you have the president, the vice-president, and a bunch of wonky aides. They’re all sitting around trying to hash out a deal. And every half-hour or so Cantor interrupts the president to ask him to stop working on all this stuff and just cave in and give him everything he wants. The president gets more and more annoyed until he finally decides he’s had enough of Cantor’s crap. I don’t know what the hell Boehner is doing while all this is happening. He’s like a lamp post, but less useful.

In any case, there’s some dispute about exactly what happened, but it’s clear that the president told Cantor off, ended the meeting, and left. The most important thing is that he told Cantor that he would not yield on revenues. He basically told Cantor that he either gets the House to raise taxes or he figure something else out, because there is no deal without revenues.

Now, this whole thing is a bit of theater. The president may be willing to swing a grand bargain, but not on any terms that Cantor is offering. That makes it a lot easier for the president to put his own sacred cows on the table. He knows they won’t be accepted. More to the point, Cantor needs something he can take back to the House that proves he can’t get a better deal. He can say he fought longer and harder than Boehner and McConnell, but their choice remains to either violate their pledge to Grover Norquist and raise taxes or default on the debt. And, if those are their choices, then doing some face-saving cop-out like McConnell has proposed becomes a whole lot more attractive. Maybe the House Republicans don’t believe or trust their hard-drinking Speaker. Maybe they need to hear the truth from someone they do trust.

What better way to set that up than to have this story come out about how Cantor was really confrontational and annoyed the president to the point that he received a dressing down? I’m not suggesting it didn’t happen or that it was somehow staged. It’s more like everyone instinctively knows how to play their part. The president is going through the motions on the negotiations. Cantor knows he has to press the president for some unreasonable capitulation. After a while, it’s time to end the Kabuki and have a little blow-up so everyone can go home with what they need.

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