Backlash to McConnell's contingency plan continues

Who knows what to think about the surprising turn of events that took place yesterday, when, after a rousing speech on the Senate floor to the effect that he would not cave on the debt ceiling, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) proposed a backup plan that would essentially allow the president to unilaterally raise the debt ceiling?

McConnell’s plan has only one defense. Let’s call it “the argument from politics” or “the argument from pragmatism.” In an editorial this morning, The Wall Street Journal provided a representative articulation of this argument:

The hotter precincts of the blogosphere were calling this a sellout yesterday, though they might want to think before they shout. The debt ceiling is going to be increased one way or another, and the only question has been what if anything Republicans could get in return. If Mr. Obama insists on a tax increase, and Republicans won’t vote for one, then what’s the alternative to Mr. McConnell’s maneuver?

Republicans who say they can use the debt limit to force Democrats to agree to a balanced budget amendment are dreaming. Such an amendment won’t get the two-thirds vote to pass the Senate, but it would give every Democrat running for re-election next year a chance to vote for it and claim to be a fiscal conservative. …

The tea party/talk-radio expectations for what Republicans can accomplish over the debt-limit showdown have always been unrealistic. As former Senator Phil Gramm once told us, never take a hostage you’re not prepared to shoot. Republicans aren’t prepared to stop a debt-limit increase because the political costs are unbearable. Republicans might have played this game better, but the truth is that Mr. Obama has more cards to play. …

Even if Mr. Obama gets his debt-limit increase without any spending cuts, he will pay a price for the privilege. He’ll have reinforced his well-earned reputation as a spender with no modern peer. He’ll own the record deficits and fast-rising debt. And he’ll own the U.S. credit-rating downgrade to AA if Standard & Poor’s so decides.

We’d far prefer a bipartisan deal to cut spending and reform entitlements without a tax increase. But if Mr. Obama won’t go along, there’s no reason Republicans should help him dodge the political consequences by committing debt-limit harakiri.

Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, essentially said the same yesterday, although Norquist also says he doesn’t specifically endorse the McConnell proposal, but rather a move of some kind to force the president to put a plan in writing (which McConnell’s maneuver does).

McConnell’s plan, while it may be a “last resort” option,” is simply a recognition of the fact that significant budgetary changes are all but impossible as long as Obama is in the White House. Norquist says it is extremely important that Republicans don’t let the president off the hook by “putting their fingerprints on his misbehavior” and agreeing to a lousy bipartisan deal to raise the debt ceiling (particularly one that raises taxes). Doing so would give Obama a huge political victory that is completely undeserved.

But some conservative groups are in effect turning McConnell’s own words on the Senate floor against him, telling McConnell, “We will not pretend a bad deal is a good one.” ForAmerica Chairman Brent Bozell, for example, had this to say in a statement yesterday, as the ForAmerica Facebook team posted a red alert urging the group’s more than one million online activists to call McConnell to disapprove:

If Mitch McConnell thinks caving to President Obama and allowing him to raise the debt ceiling without cuts is the way to become Senate Majority Leader he is sorely mistaken. The American people elected him to serve as a check on Obama’s appetite for out-of-control spending, not to write him a blank check to continue the binge. It’s these sort of shenanigans that got Republicans thrown out of power in 2006. If he is serious about giving Obama and the Democrats a free pass in exchange for not having to make the difficult decisions, he should look to John Boehner to see real courage.

Bozell is right that Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) continue to fight for meaningful spending cuts in exchange for a debt limit increase, but, notably, Boehner himself characterized McConnell’s plan as “good work.” The line from House Republicans seems to be that having this backup plan in place could substantially help the deal negotiation itself.

But I’m skeptical. All along, I’ve had what the WSJ called “tea-party/talk radio … unrealistic expectations” of Republicans. In my mind, the debt ceiling debate was a hostage Republicans were prepared to shoot — because, with no real threat of default and with the overwhelming support of the American people to oppose any debt limit increase at all, “no deal” needn’t have had politically unbearable consequences, provided Republicans somehow made it clear any painful consequences (Social Security checks not going out, for example) were a result of the president’s decisions as to how to prioritize spending under a debt limit budget.

Naively, I thought that’s what McConnell was saying on the Senate floor yesterday — that no solution could be reached, so Republicans would have to vote against a debt limit increase. What he was actually saying was that no solution could be reached, so he would have to propose a plan that would force (or free) the president to raise the ceiling by himself. The difference between the two is more than $2 trillion in authorized debt.

McConnell’s plan does provide political cover — but how cool would it have been if he would have had confidence that the American people would pay attention and provide that cover themselves by nobly accepting whatever difficult consequences ensued from no debt limit increase and voting out the bad budgeters in Nov. 2012?

But then the question becomes, could Republicans have depended on the electorate in that way? Maybe not. Perhaps my faith in the American people is also reflective of “tea party/talk radio … unrealistic expectations.” Maybe politicians like McConnell have learned to hedge their bets with political tricks because experience has taught them the voting public is fickle. Maybe the mistrust rightly goes both ways: The electorate can’t trust politicians to be principled, politicians can’t trust the electorate to reward principled decision-making … Cynicism setting in.

Update: In her excellent column on the subject, Ann Coulter essentially answers my above question, “Could Republicans have depended on the electorate in that way?” She writes:

The problem isn’t with elected Republicans; the problem is that the people want their treats. According to a Gallup poll in January, more than 60 percent of Americans want no cuts to Social Security and Medicare, which currently consume more than one-third of the entire federal budget.

Obama and the rest of his party are determined to keep increasing the size of our massively bloated government, on and on, year after year, without end in sight, until everyone with a job works exclusively to pay taxes to the government. Plan B is for everyone to move to Greece.

Republicans can’t cut anything as long as they control only one-half of one branch of government. If purist conservatives on the outside want serious spending cuts, they’d better give the GOP a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress first.