Say what you will about the “contingency plan” that Mitch McConnell revealed today on the floor of the Senate, but at least it frees us from the Hobson’s choice with which we’ve been presented. Up until now, Republicans have been trying to turn Obama’s need for a substantial increase in the debt ceiling into leverage to secure spending cuts that Democrats would otherwise find intolerable. Obama has adroitly applied counter-leverage by insisting on substantial tax increases in exchange for spending cuts that are more substantial than those the Republicans originally bargained for. That has brought us to an impasse that leaves the prospect of avoiding a government default looking pretty remote.
Now, McConnell proposes summarily to forfeit whatever leverage Republicans get from resisting raising the debt ceiling, so that the president and the Democrats will be unable to insulate themselves from democratic accountability respecting the state of public finances. Evidently, the theory is that, politically speaking, the sudden withdrawal of Republican resistance to the president’s budgetary priorities will cause the president and his party to fall on their collective faces.
Guy Benson provides a serviceable explanation of how the McConnell plan works:
“Republicans in Congress would agree to vote on legislation authorizing the president to propose three separate incremental debt ceiling increases, spaced over the remainder of his term. He would be required to couple each request with a corresponding set of spending cuts that exceed the dollar amount of his sought-after debt limit hike. These cuts would be of his choosing alone. The first pair of requests would come prior to the August 2 deadline. It would be for roughly $700 Billion. The next requests, for $900 Billion, would come in the fall, and the final tranche (also for $900 Billion) would be scheduled for summer of 2012 -- in the thick of the campaign cycle.”There’s something brilliant about this as an act of political jujitsu. When they voted for the Ryan budget, congressional Republicans put their governing priorities on the table for all to see. Until now, Democrats have been able to keep theirs, and their unpopular policy consequences, close to their chest. That asymmetry leaves Obama free suddenly to strut around like a born-again deficit hawk by offering $3 trillion of spending cuts for a measly $1 trillion of revenue increases knowing that the Republican congressional caucus would flay its leaders alive if they ever took Obama up on the deal.
Now McConnell is returning the favor. He's telling the president that he can strut around all he wants knowing, however, that his own base is likely to turn against him if he shows he’s serious about getting a handle on the deficit and that independent voters are likely to turn on him if he shows he isn’t. Better yet, that will leave Republicans, who are now in danger of taking it on the chin politically when Obama stops sending out Social Security checks, free to vote against raising the debt ceiling without incurring a reputation for civic irresponsibility among independent voters. One way or the other, McConnell's strategy turns the politics of the debt-ceiling debate upside down.
Republicans can decide for themselves whether the McConnell strategy meets their ideological and political needs. Maybe implementing it will enable Obama to take the spending and taxing issues away from Republicans; or maybe McConnell's merely revealing his strategy will bring Obama back to the debt-ceiling bargaining table a chastened man. But this we know: if the McConnell strategy is implemented, it will make the next election into a much-needed referendum on momentous fiscal issues that will oblige both sides to reveal, and make a case for, their budgetary priorities.
I’m probably not the guy to tell you whether that’s a net political gain for Democrats or Republicans, but I’m pretty sure it’s a substantial gain for democratic citizens.