A clever move in a broken political game
Jul 13, 2011

A clever move in a broken political game

The "negotiations" surrounding raising the debt limit in the United States is a particularly poignant example of the oh-too-funny-if-not-so-serious circus of partisan, brinkmanship showboating that dominants so much of American politics. It is hard to imagine how the most effective way to make multi-trillion dollar decisions that fundamentally affect the nature of key aspects of our society is while pretending - for that is what it is - that we are about to go over the cliff of not raising the debt limit and going into default. The dominant motivation, from both sides, seems to be an attempt to manipulate public opinion and score the political points going into the next election, a motivation with noticeably distinct consequences than from aiming to do what is best for the American people.

Mitch McConnell's recent proposal is, if nothing else, an excellent play in this game that underscores the extent to which this is just that: a political game. His proposal is to essentially give Obama the power to increase the debt limit, three times before the next election and no more after that, in exchange for Obama submitting nonbinding multi-trillion dollar spending cut proposals that he can later just veto or have the Senate democrats kill.

Firstly, it demonstrates the truth that has been known all along; namely, that the debt limit will of course be raised. It might appear to be a massive capitulation by Republicans since they have not bound Obama to anything at all in terms of spending cuts and appear to give up on the trillions of cuts under debate. That is only the correct perspective, however, if actually cutting the deficit is the goal. Given how Republicans forced through the massive extension of tax cuts for the rich in the last brinkmanship moment, which does more harm to cutting the deficit than anything else in the last two years, it is hard to take them seriously on this goal. If instead we see it as trying to gain the political upper hand then the move is bordering on brilliant.

The election timing is everything. Obama in negotiations has pushed hard to make sure the next debt limit increase happens surely after the next election. The last thing he wants is another debate in 6 or 12 months where he appears to, yet again, be raising the debt limit. While it is a procedural consequence of other policies and of little importance in itself, the debt limit makes a good political talking point and allows Obama to be portrayed as a reckless, big government guy who can't control the deficit. Republicans think they can win if they paint this picture effectively enough, and they might be right. Obama claims his motivation to not do a short term punt is because the debate would be too politically influenced right before an election. While surely correct, it is far too politically influenced right now and, as Obama surely knows, it is he who has the most to lose should it repeat itself before the election.

What this new proposal does it make Obama force the debt limit increases not once, not twice, but three times before the next election. They loose their spending cuts, sure, but they get to keep this issue politically alive and make it appear as if it is entirely Obama doing this reckless debt increases and not at all themselves. Indeed, since they won't vote on the issue, they can cry all kinds of protest at the idea of Obama raising the debt limit against their wishes. Of course, it will be on their, and everyone else's, wishes since everyone agrees to raise the limit, it is just a question of how many concessions or political points can be scored along the way.

Getting Obama to make nonbinding, but monstrous, spending cut suggestions is the real genius of the plan. Nothing meaningful has to come from them, of course, but it is win-win for Republicans politically. Firstly, it will shift the discussion to whatever it is that Obama proposes and make these new, and nominally very large, spending cuts the new framing for any further discussion of cuts. If Democrats don't go along with the proposals - as they surely won't - then they can he painted as not only defying the good decency as Republicans see it but also of being so out of touch they can't even agree to the cuts from their own leader. Should Obama himself actually have to veto something he will be portrayed as flip flopping with his own suggestions and not taking cutting the deficit seriously. Should both the Senate democrats and Obama follow through on the massive spending cuts then the Republicans win this way by managing to exact cuts which they will claim to be all their own. There is no way they lose here.

The other thing that it avoids is the danger of an up or down vote on raising the debt limit, at the last moment, and tied to no concessions. If this were to occur, Republicans would be all but forced to vote in favor of the debt limit increases thereby gaining no concessions and also gaining no political points since they are voting for the things just as much as Democrats are. It might even be worse for Republicans since it will continue the fracturing in the party since the Tea Party caucus could simply vote against it and just force the traditional Republicans to vote in favor of the increase which would give the Tea Party a talking point during primaries (the domain of inter party political battles). The less likely a deal looks, the higher the chances of an up or down vote, and hence this proposal which is effectively an up or down vote but with the various political advantages described above.

All this said, it is not at all clear this proposal is going to happen. Democrats have good reason to dislike it for the reasons described. However, many Republicans may also not like it particularly in the House because they will feel they are giving up their concessions they might get from Obama. Time will tell.

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