WASHINGTON Republican and Democratic strategists are wasting no time in trying to package the failure of the deficit-cutting "super committee" to their advantage as they look ahead to the 2012 U.S. elections.
Triumph may be tough for ordinary citizens and voters to discern in the panel's disappointing end, which will do little for Congress' historically low approval ratings.
But for political strategists on both sides of the aisle, failure to bridge the bipartisan gap does at least crystallize the contending messages of the election campaign: Democrats will say Republicans care only about the rich, Republicans will say Democrats are hopelessly spendthrift, and President Barack Obama will step up his campaign against a "do-nothing Congress."
"Campaigns are about narrative," said Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist and former adviser to Senator John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee and debt panel member.
"Whichever narrative is most believable and compelling wins. Republicans are obstructionist; Democrats want to raise your taxes and spend your money. Those are the respective messages."
Which begs the question whether party strategists were secretly rooting for the super committee's failure. If so, no one is admitting it.
Still, the advantages to the parties are clear: Both Republicans and Democrats can now enter the campaign period without having betrayed any of their parties' core principles, which would have cost them support from key interest groups.
Republicans on the super committee stuck to their guns on no tax hikes, and Democrats will no longer have to sell politically risky cuts to spending on Medicare, the healthcare program for the elderly, or Social Security, the federal retirement program.
$5 TRILLION ON OBAMA
The arc of the Republican narrative is clear: President Barack Obama has added nearly $5 trillion to the U.S. deficit since he took office in January 2009.
"Our goal will be to drive home the fact that our nation has now crossed over $15 trillion in debt, and that is on him," said Sean Spicer, communications director for the Republican National Committee. "It's his policies that have gotten us here. That's what we're focused on, not the process piece of it, whether the super committee failed or not."
Republicans will also blame Obama for not getting more directly involved in the super committee process, despite his having presented the 12-member panel with a $3 trillion budget savings plan.
Obama deliberately kept the super committee at arm's length. Aides saw no political advantage in having him involved in a process that had a high chance of failure. White House officials emphasized the committee was a congressional exercise.
"Congress assigned itself a task; wrote a law, voted for it, the president signed it," White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Monday, dismissing any suggestion Obama way to blame for the committee's failure.
Although the White House said it hoped the committee would succeed, its failure hands Obama more fodder to criticize Republicans as he heads into the 2012 presidential election.
A divide over taxes and spending cuts kept the two sides from reaching a deal, and Obama will exploit that difference on the campaign trail.
"The president is going to be able to tell a clear story about both sides wanting deficit reduction but one side being unable or unwilling to have the wealthy pitch in," said Michael Linden of the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank close to the Obama administration.
Obama was swift to point the finger of blame in his response to the committee's failure.
"There's still too many Republicans in Congress who have refused to listen to the voices of reason and compromise that are coming from outside of Washington," he said.
Republican strategists acknowledge the presidency gives Obama a powerful bully pulpit, but it also means the buck stops with him.
"He'll blame Congress, but ultimately it is the president who is held responsible for his problems," said Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak.
It is too early to know how voters react to the super committee failure and whether they will buy the spin from the parties.
"We don't know which side the public is going to go for at the moment," said Devine.
With the U.S. debt on an unsustainable trajectory and no bipartisan agreement in sight, political strategists may be the only winners to emerge from the deficit committee's failure.
"The parties have to solve the problem together," said William Frenzel, a former Republican lawmaker and now a scholar at the Brookings Institution. "Until they grow up, the problem won't be solved."
(Additional reporting by Tim Reid and Alister Bull; Writing by Ross Colvin; Editing by Mary Milliken and Peter Cooney)