The next GOP debacle?

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Peter Wehner thinks it’s foolish for Republicans to “elevate the debt ceiling debate and (unwisely) threaten to allow the United States to default right up until the moment when they cave (which they would be forced to do).”

He’s not alone. Ross Douthat agrees, writing that

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.

I have my own concerns about using the debt ceiling as leverage:

1. A good political fight pits Republicans against Democrats. When Republicans win, Democrats lose (and vice versa.) Either way, the American public wins when both sides compete for their favor (as I’ve noted before, the GOP should be engaged in transactional leadership — but the transaction should appeal to the public’s better angels.)

But in this scenario, the potential victim in this game of chicken over the debt ceiling would be The American Public. And it would be done ostensibly by the hands of Republicans. That would surely be the perception at least. (Note: I realize continuing to ignore the debt crisis also hurts the American public — but, fair or not, that seems less immediate. I’m also aware of the nuances regarding the term, “default.”)

2. As Thatcher’s maxim goes, “First you win the argument, then you win the vote.” By using the debt ceiling to pressure Obama to cut spending, Republicans are — even in the unlikely circumstance that they should “win” — depriving the country of a national conversation about debt and spending.

Given the choice, the media will always focus on the political aspects of the “government shutdown” over the substantive points.

Instead, Republicans should plan and execute a proactive strategy to force Democrats (and the nation) to confront the spending crisis. They should launch a campaign that ensures entire news cycles are dedicated to solving the spending question.

Fiscal responsibility is a winning and responsible position. Why should Republicans deprive themselves of the moral high ground on policy, by muddying the waters with what would surely appear to be risky and unseemly tactics?

Bottom line: Republicans don’t just need to extract concessions on spending, they need to win the argument on spending. And this is no way to do that.

3. Though we should prioritize doing the right thing over PR, at some point public relations is policy (inasmuch as it impacts your ability to accomplish other things.) As Douthat implies, a hard line stance here could ultimately weaken the GOP’s ability to solve the debt crisis in the future.

Matt K. Lewis