The debt limit plan designed by Senator Mitch McConnell is political engineering of the highest order: Take a thorny issue with lots of angles, distill it to its political essence and come up with a way to minimize your pain and maximize your benefit. No, the plan doesn’t reduce the size of the federal debt by one dollar. It doesn’t limit government or expand freedom, nor does it punish President Obama for failing to do the same. It may, however, give Republican officeholders an issue to run on in the next election cycle. For that reason, many in the Republican leadership consider it brilliant.
Senator McConnell is by all accounts a decent person. He’s pretty conservative, too. The principled fight he put up on behalf of the First Amendment and against campaign finance reform several years ago reveals a man willing to fight for issues he actually cares about.
And that may be the difference in this case. Although virtually all Republicans campaign on fiscal restraint, how many actually care about it deeply? Let’s see: DeMint and Coburn and maybe a few others in the Senate, as well as a minority of House members, many of them freshmen. And that’s about it. Does anyone really believe that dramatically reducing the size and power of the federal government is a top priority for anyone in the Republican leadership?
Consider the record. The men now running the Republican Party have governed through a time of unprecedented growth in government. Much of this growth occurred while these very leaders were in senior positions, and too much of it happened with both a Republican Congress and a Republican president in office. During the last election, conservative voters began to figure this out. Republican incumbents responded with a chorus of mea culpas. They pledged their sacred honor that they’d reform.
What happened? In the last year Republicans have shown that in actual budget negotiations, sitting across the table from an actual president, their short-term political interests come first. Even with a majority in the House and a solid block in the Senate, they’ve proved unable to cut much of anything at all. Remember the Pledge to America? You can still read it at GOP.gov, but don’t look for many of its reforms to be enacted into law any time soon. Its authors seem to have stopped trying.
Maybe they’re watching the polls. The public understands that the government is broke, but many still don’t want to cut programs they enjoy or depend on. That’s where political leadership comes in, as Gov. Chris Christie has shown repeatedly in New Jersey. If Christie can cut spending in one of the bluest states in the nation, in a political environment in which his opponents have publicly wished for his death, what’s John Boehner’s excuse?
It’s not too late. Republicans have some advantages in the current debt limit debate. Polling shows the country is adamantly opposed to President Obama’s desire to take on more debt without cutting spending. Republicans could harness this sentiment and offer Obama two options: either agree to spending cuts of at least $4 trillion to offset deficit spending, or accept month-to-month increases in the debt limit that would extend the current debate into an election year.
Obama might reject both options. But either way he’d be forced to explain himself, and in so doing justify his commitment to big government at the cost of economic stability. That would be a conversation worth having.
Instead, Republicans seem to be warming to Sen. McConnell’s proposal. They love its political calculus: limited risk, maximum potential for electoral benefit. Never mind the effect on the country.
Meanwhile, the laws of arithmetic remain unchanged. Last week, Standard and Poor’s announced that unless Congress reduces the federal debt by $4 trillion, the ratings agency will be forced to downgrade America’s bond rating. That would amount to disaster. Many of the countries and institutions that buy American debt could no longer do so if our bonds didn’t meet their portfolios’ AAA ratings requirement. The result: the cost of federal borrowing would rise by trillions over time, adding to the debt spiral. A downgrade would also mean that rates on all sorts of non-government loans would rise as well, adding to the individual debt of all Americans and American businesses.
How does the McConnell plan respond to this imminent and dire threat? It doesn’t. Sen. McConnell and his growing band of Republican allies have apparently concluded that a debt downgrade is an acceptable cost of doing politics. It’s not. It’s horrifying.
Tucker Carlson is the Editor-in-Chief of The Daily Caller. Neil Patel is the Publisher of The Daily Caller and was previously Chief Policy Advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney.