The Corner

McConnell’s Tactical Retreat

I agree with much of this reader’s take on the sorry state of the debt-ceiling talks:

I’ve been watching the debt negotiations play out with a bit of a sinking feeling–Obama’s strategy of offering $3 trillion in imaginary cuts in exchange for $1 trillion in tax increases was genius.  The offer isn’t genuine–nobody knows where the $3 trillion comes from, other than that it doesn’t include real structural entitlement reform.  But because the press hasn’t called him out on this, he’s able to come off looking pretty reasonable–i.e., asking for $1 dollar of new taxes for every $3 of spending cuts.  Grover Norquist may not like it, but that’s where most of the country is (especially independents who decide elections), and it isn’t such a bad deal for Republicans–especially if the new revenue came from closing loopholes rather than raising marginal rates.  The problem, of course, is that Obama isn’t really offering a 3 for 1 deal; he’s promising fake cuts in exchange for real tax increases that are designed to permanently finance the massive expansion of government he has sponsored over the past 2 and a half years.  But the reasons why the President’s “cuts” are fake are difficult to convey (especially during the summer when no one is paying attention).

At the end of the day, a retreat along the lines that McConnell is proposing might be the best option.  It would be hard for Obama to veto, and perhaps Republicans could offer it as a way to avoid default, but still continue to negotiate a deficit reduction package, so it won’t look like they are giving up. 

I was particularly struck by the way the reader calls the McConnell’s Contingency “a retreat” in the course of defending it, since the plan’s biggest haters are keen on calling it a “surrender.” But not all retreats are capitulations, are they? I’m not personally in love with the McConnell plan, but I do know the senator is probably the Republicans’ best political tactician on the Hill — it’s not for nothing that one top Dem staffer called the plan a work of “evil genius.”

Consider: If it’s true that we’ll default on or around August 2nd, or — as is more likely the case — the frenzied fiscal juggling and partial shutdown of government services we’ll have to undertake to prevent default will disrupt the markets in a major way, and be all around bad for the full faith and credit of the United States, then McConnell’s plan isn’t purely about scoring political points. It’s about protecting the creditworthiness of the United States in a way that also scores maximum political points.

Look, liberal blogger Ezra Klein is absolutely correct when he (derisively) calls Mitch McConnell “the most honest man in Washington.” McConnell, time and again, puts his intentions — puts the strategic thinking behind his maneuvers — out there for everyone to see, as he did on Laura Ingraham’s radio show yesterday:

The highlights:

1:44 “Doing the right thing for the country is our first obligation, but we cannot force a result, we need to do the next best thing and that’s clarify the differences between the two parties.”

2:14 – “They want to blame the economy on us and the reason default is no better an idea today than it was when Newt Gingrich tried it in 1995, is it destroys your brand, and it gives the president an opportunity to blame Republicans for a bad economy.”

3:03 Laura: “While it puts the burden, it shifts the burden to the greatest extent to Obama, in effect there is kind of a vote at the beginning to raise the debt ceiling because you are ceding…”

McConnell: “No, no. It only authorizes the president to ask for it. There will be no vote to raise the debt ceiling I suspect by any Republican.”

Laura: “Isn’t that passing the buck, Senator? Isn’t that passing the buck of leadership to the White House?”

McConnell: “We’ve been trying to get this liberal president to sign a deal worth signing. You know it makes a difference when you only control a third of the government. If we were able to run the government out of the House of Representatives we would be able to get a result that we would like.”

4:40Laura: “When I see the New York Times on the other hand, praising the deal, Harry Reid seeming to be open to it, and even the White House murmers that it might be something acceptable I get a little nervous, why do you think they are embracing it?”

McConnell: “Because they want to raise the debt ceiling and of course we know that is going to happen. Just like we knew shutting down the government in 1995 was not going to work for us, it helped Bill Clinton get reelected. I refuse to help Barack Obama get reelected.”

Ugly and unpleasant as it is, I frankly don’t find much in McConnell’s analysis to disagree with. There seems to be no plan, and no hopes for a plan, that can pass both the House of Representatives and the Senate. There is no deal to be had that is a deal worth having. In light of this truth, what is to be done?

Most conservatives — including three-quarters of our readers if the current results of the homepage poll are representative — would issue McConnell a “stand or die” order. Believe me, I understand the sentiment. But again, not all retreats are capitulations. McConnell clearly thinks of this as a tactical retreat in the service of his overarching strategic objective: to make President Obama a one-term president. You can hate the McConnell plan because you don’t share his overarching strategic objective — i.e., you think it is more important to stand on conservative principles, whatever the consequences, than it is to oust President Obama — or because you share McConnell’s strategic objective but you don’t think his choice of means will serve it. But neither is the same thing as hating the plan because it’s a “surrender.”


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