As rain splatters the windows of Sen. John McCain’s second-floor office on Capitol Hill, the 74-year-old Arizona Republican leans back, clasps his hands, and recalls the Nineties. Brinksmanship, he says, cost the party then, and it could cripple Republicans this summer — especially if Rep. Michele Bachmann gets her way.
Over in the House, “I am told that it is very difficult,” McCain says. “There are Republicans who are committed, like Michele Bachmann, to vote against raising the debt limit under any circumstances.” Bachmann, he warns, is acting “sort of like Senator Obama did.”
#ad#In 2006, then-senator Obama refused to lift the debt limit. Speaking on the floor, Obama ascribed his opposition to the “failure” of George W. Bush to address the country’s fiscal problems.
McCain has little patience for such posturing. He tells me that political disagreement with the president — any president — should not jeopardize the credit rating of the United States.
“What some of my colleagues on the Republican side don’t understand is that sometime before August 2, the markets would start reacting in a negative fashion,” McCain says. “Sure, we might be able to divert funds from one pot to another to keep things going, but that’s not what the president is going to do.”
“It seems to some of us that the president, all along, was sort of playing rope-a-dope,” McCain says. “Not surprisingly, he has ratcheted up the level of tension by saying that he couldn’t guarantee people’s Social Security checks. So of course, the calls have been coming into my office; people are worried. They should be worried when the president of the United States makes a statement like that.”
Yet as poorly as Obama has handled the negotiations, anger with the president, McCain says, may be clouding the party’s judgment at a time when its political fortunes are improving. “If I were Boehner and Cantor, I’d get one of our highly respected Republican pollsters to come over and brief them,” he says. “Right now, we’re not winning the battle.”
Fifteen years ago, President Clinton blamed Republicans for the 1995 government shutdown and won reelection. In similar fashion, McCain argues that a debt default would give President Obama “total victory” in 2012, “just like it was total victory for Clinton when Dole and Gingrich had to cave in 1995.”
“I appreciate the zeal and fervor of my colleagues; I want us to get an agreement,” McCain says, but with the financial markets uneasy and Obama intent on raising taxes, it is time for Republicans to continue the debate on a fresh front.
“With a huge segment of the media clearly cheering for Obama,” Republicans, McCain says, risk being blamed for any economic tremor, as unfair as that may seem. “Some people say we wouldn’t get the blame — we would get the blame.” After three years of highlighting Obama’s inept economic stewardship, suddenly, he fears, the party would have the finger pointed at them.
“It’s frustrating,” McCain says, shaking his head. “I really hope our Republican base can understand that we have not lost our zeal or dedication to spending cuts, but we are aware of the consequences of not having a Plan B in case all else fails.”
For McCain, the only viable Plan B, at this point, is the McConnell plan, a legislative maneuver that would enable President Obama to raise the debt ceiling via a presidential veto. Noting that the GOP leader’s proposal is “too complicated,” McCain emphasizes that it should be supported, however reluctantly, as the country’s credit rating teeters.
“There are some on the right who are saying this is a sell-out, this is a cop-out; they have been very creative in their descriptions,” McCain says. “This is the last option.” In coming months, he pledges, “we will fight as hard as we can to get our agenda of spending cuts without tax increases.”
McCain acknowledges that many Republicans will not be satisfied with this. Among conservatives, one leading agenda item, for instance, has been to tie passage of a balanced-budget amendment to any debt-limit increase. McCain says the clamor is admirable, but there are not 67 votes in the Senate to pass it.
#page#“Harry Reid controls the calendar,” McCain scowls, so passing such measures before the debt-ceiling deadline would be near impossible. “Now, if it came up tomorrow, I’d certainly vote for it and fight for it,” he says. “In reality, insisting on passing a balanced-budget amendment before the debt limit is not a realistic approach.”
“I am totally with these guys,” McCain says, lavishing praise on freshman GOP senators, many of whom sailed into office on the tea-party wave. “I ran for reelection in the last election, I promised my voters that I’d do everything possible to cut spending, that I wouldn’t raise taxes. I’m committed to that. It’s not that we’re not together philosophically — it’s about the path to how we get there.”
#ad#“I don’t want a repeat of 1996,” McCain says. “But if we ignore the lessons of history, we will be doomed to repeat them.” In the Nineties, he reminds me, “President Clinton, the most adroit politician I’ve ever encountered, painted Republicans into a corner and the repercussions reverberated.”
This time, he says, beware the ghosts.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.