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Monday, December 5, 2016

In the summer of 2011, when the “Grand Bargain” on deficit reduction failed, U.S. House Speaker John Boehner accused President Barack Obama of “moving the goalposts” — shifting his demands to the left.

After Boehner objected, Obama quickly moved the goalposts back and said he wanted to keep talking. But the Speaker thought it was too late and the deal collapsed.

Goalpost-shifting is back in style. Behind the soaring rhetoric of the inaugural address and his announcement of a bold immigration plan, the president is engaged in a carefully calibrated effort to move the debate away from the right side of the field.

In their interactions over the last two years, a chastened Obama started in the center and the Republicans started on the right, and the never-found compromise lay on the center-right.

Since winning re-election, Obama is starting on the center-left and the Republicans are moving toward the center-right. With any luck, they will find compromise in the center. The real center.

Of course, they won’t get there until they move beyond the bad blood of their end-of-the-year failure to do anything significant about the budget.

The House leadership says Obama delivered boring “I won” lectures to the Speaker and doesn’t have a clue about how to negotiate; the White House says the Speaker can’t deliver his own caucus.

Both sides have blown chances to strike a deal on favorable terms. Republicans should have done so in July, 2011 instead of holding out for a big 2012 electoral victory that never came. Democrats should have accepted Boehner’s December, 2012 offer of a 1-to-1 ratio of spending cuts to tax increases instead of taking the risk of allowing fights over budget deadlines to overshadow priorities such as immigration and gun safety.

Even as they lick their wounds after the election, Republicans should take comfort in how far they have shifted the center of gravity in U.S. politics over the last two years.

Consider the coverage of Obama’s second inaugural address. Pundits outdid each other in describing how liberal it was.

It wasn’t. With the exception of its first-ever mention of gay rights, the speech was essentially an eloquent rear-guard action defending the 20th-century consensus on the role of government.

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