January 10, 2013

I know you’re tired of hearing that the Republicans’ position on the debt ceiling is incoherent and that their claims of leverage are greatly exaggerated. But now we have none other than Karl Rove confirming all of this for us.

Rove’s latest column rips into Obama for supposedly mischaracterizing the GOP position on the debt limit. He quotes Obama saying: “We can’t not pay bills that we’ve already incurred.” And here’s how Rove responds to Obama:

The experience didn’t leave Mr. Obama with greater humility. Instead, this New Year’s Day he tartly said, “We can’t not pay bills that we’ve already incurred.” Who is suggesting we don’t? Not House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, or any other Republican leader. Quite the opposite. They want to cover the cost of the existing debt while cutting spending to prevent a fiscal catastrophe.

Mr. Obama’s use of straw-man arguments to misrepresent the GOP’s position became tiresome long ago. He does this in part because he can get away with it, thanks to a compliant press corps. His reliance on the tactic may also spring from his recognition that he has a weak case and cannot win the argument otherwise.

Who is suggesting we don’t pay our debts? Not Boehner, McConnell, or any other GOP leaders.

There you have it. Rove acknowledges flat out that Boehner, McConnell, and other Republican leaders do recognize that they will have to raise the debt ceiling. They just, you know, want to raise it while reaching a broader deal to cut spending. The game here is absurdly transparent: You mustn’t claim Republicans are crazy enough to destroy the economy to get their way, because they don’t want to do that at all — but you still must play along with the idea that the need to raise the debt ceiling (which they acknowledge must happen) still somehow gives them leverage to get the cuts they want.

As Jonathan Chait writes today, other conservative writers are also trying to manage this balance and failing spectacularly. But Rove’s rendition of this tune is easily one of the most revealing yet. Rove claims Obama’s alleged misrepresentation of the GOP position shows he has a weak case and can’t win the debt ceiling argument. But Rove’s assertions here are actually an unwitting admission of the weakness of the GOP position.

By claiming Republicans do want to raise the debt limit, Rove is revealing not only that Republicans know they cannot allow default; he’s also revealing that they know they can no longer be perceived to be willing to default. This is an admission that the debt ceiling does not give Republicans leverage they have long claimed it would give them — but it’s an admission of this on two levels, the practical and the political. Indeed, it’s bordering on an admission that the whole strategy is a failure.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.