Are Republicans Crazy? Or Just Irresponsible?
No doubt the president's recalcitrance in facing up to his responsibilities is extremely troubling. But as Ross Douthat points out, the GOP, in reality, has very little leverage to force him to deal:
Note that it’s perfectly sensible for Republicans to negotiate over how the debt ceiling is to be raised — to haggle over the extension period and the combination of Democratic and Republican votes, for instance, and to look for a small-ball deal on spending to give cover to the legislators who cast those votes. But there simply isn’t a way for the G.O.P. to win anything big here, given the correlation of political forces in Washington D.C. and the country as a whole. And the fantasy of leveraging the debt ceiling to “force” the White House to dramatically cut entitlements, if actually pursued rather than just entertained, would quickly put the Republican Party on the path to losing the more modest leverage that it currently enjoys.
There simply aren't the votes to deal with comprehensive entitlement reform -- a "fantasy" as Douthat points out. Democrats in the Senate would filibuster any attempt to cut Medicare or reform Social Security even if it were attached to a debt limit bill or continuing resolution on funding the government. It should go without saying who would win that political argument with voters -- Republicans would still get the blame for an economic downturn and anger seniors in the process.
To that end, the president is pushing the notion that unless Republicans raise the debt limit, they will be turning the U.S. into a "deadbeat nation":
"Republicans in Congress have two choices here," the president said. "They can act responsibly and pay America's bills. Or they can act irresponsibly and send America into another economic crisis." He added, "To even entertain the idea of this happening, of America not paying its bills, is irresponsible. It's absurd."
"The full faith and credit of the united states of America is not a bargaining chip," Obama said. "And they better choose quickly, because time is running out."
Of course, there have been few increases in the debt ceiling over the past 20 years that weren't tied to some kind of deficit reduction. But Obama is not seeking to persuade, he is seeking to lay blame if the economy goes south. In this, he has a distinct advantage largely due to the fact that to most Americans, there is no rhyme or reason to Republican obstinacy. The president is successfully portraying Republican threats as a political ploy to make him look bad, or to blame him if the country slides back into a recession -- or worse.
Speaker Boehner has said publicly that he wants a one-for-one deal on the debt limit: one dollar cut for every dollar added to the national debt. If he was dealing with reasonable people, it would be a reasonable idea. But the president doesn't want to cut much spending. As he said at yesterday's press conference, he wants to "invest":
I’m happy to have a conversation about how we reduce our deficits further in a sensible way, although one thing I want to point out is that the American people are also concerned about how we grow our economy, how we put people back to work, how we make sure that we finance our workers getting properly trained and our schools are giving our kids the education we deserve. There’s a whole growth agenda which will reduce our deficits that’s important, as well.
Spending God knows how much on his "growth agenda" will reduce the deficit? Since Obama is doing the adding in this case, he says one plus one equals two when objective reality says something entirely different.
If the Republicans were to signal a willingness to negotiate a much smaller package of cuts in exchange for lifting the ceiling on the debt, they would put pressure on Obama to come to the table, and possibly saddle him with the blame if the economy tanks. It's really all the leverage they have -- especially if they want to make far more significant cuts in the showdown over government funding that will happen a few weeks after the debt limit vote. But the rank and file in the House show absolutely no desire for such a deal and seem willing to take their chances that the economy won't melt down as a result of the government's inability to borrow money to pay for obligations already accrued.
It took us 40 or more years to get into the mess we are in now. We are not going to solve it overnight or in one fell swoop of budget cuts. Simply put, the GOP House must take a more realistic and prudent view of reducing the deficit. This is the responsible path to deal with our fiscal problems, unlike taking unwarranted risks with our economic future by rolling the dice on the debt limit.