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Resetting the political stakes of the debt ceiling debate

at 01:30 PM ET, 07/25/2011

In eight days the U.S. will default on its loans unless the Congress and the White House can find agreement on how to raise the debt ceiling. That much we know. Everything else surrounding the debt debate is still very fuzzy.

Amid the competing proposals — House Republicans and Senate Democrats are each expected to roll out their latest visions Monday afternoon — and an avalanche of huge numbers (is anyone really able to conceptualize what a TRILLION dollars actually is?), it’s worth taking one big step back to analyze the political stakes for each of the major players in the debt ceiling debate.

We’ve broken down those stakes after the jump.

President Obama: The president wants a deal — plain and simple. He largely stayed out of the early skirmishes over the debt ceiling, letting it play out in Congress. And, when his debt commission presented their plan in the spring Obama was polite but far from effusive about its recommendations. (Obama’s lukewarm reaction led us to give the debt commissio our “Worst Week in Washington” award a few months back.)

Of late, Obama has drastically upshifted his involvement — and rhetoric — with some success. Polling suggests that the number of people who believe that default would cause serious economic problems has risen sharply of late and more people seem ready to blame congressional Republicans rather than Obama if the unthinkable does happen. In the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll, 77 percent said Republicans are not willing to compromise enough on a debt ceiling deal while 58 percent said the same of Obama.

Still, the angry Obama that was on display when the grand bargain debt deal blew up on Friday is not the image that his political strategists want to be the take-away from this protracted fight over the financial future of the country.

Obama has spent the last six months — or, better understood, the time since his party’s blowout losses in the 2010 election — courting independent voters with rhetoric that suggests he is the adult in the room, the only person in Washington looking out for average Americans.

Obama as angry partisan is not in keeping with that sentiment. Obama needs some sort of deal — the details almost don’t matter at this point — to re-affirm the sense that he can make good on his 2008 campaign promise to get Washington working again.

John Boehner: Boehner is conflicted. There is clearly a part of him that wants a big deal, a lasting legacy that he can leave on the Speakership. The other, more practical part of Boehner understands that cutting a deal with President Obama that includes any revenue increases likely can’t pass the House and, even worse from his point of view, would almost certainly permanently damage him in the eyes of the tea party wing of the GOP conference.

Boehner’s “ally” — Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) — hasn’t made things any easier, staking out ground as the voice for the tea party in the debt ceiling negotiations.

With Cantor clearly embracing the “no retreat, no surrender” position — with apologies to Bruce Springsteen — Boehner is pushed into the ideological middle, never a good place to be in a party that has moved to the right in the past 18 months.

Boehner, of course, didn’t get to where he is by not seeing which way the political wind is blowing. He has been adamant from the start of the debt ceiling negotiations that the inclusion of any sort of tax increase in the deal is simply a non-starter for his conference and hasn’t publicly diverged from that pledge — ever.

If a deal does get made that includes trillions in spending cuts with no revenue increases, Boehner can legitimately claim political victory for holding the line and “winning”. Of course, it’s not clear whether either his members or the American public will agree.

Eric Cantor:Cantor has been the “id” to Boehner’s “ego” over the past month or so. First he walked away from the debt discussions led by Vice President Joe Biden and then got into a high-profile -- if, unfortunately, behind-the-scenes — verbal scrap with President Obama.

Those largely symbolic moves are clearly intended to endear Cantor to the tea-party aligned members of the Republican House conference who, in the wake of the 2010 election, are seen as prized allies in any future leadership fight.

Cantor’s future in leadership, however, is dependent on how Boehner comes out of this deal (or lack thereof). There still remains the possibility (see above) that Boehner is elevated from a compromise and if that’s the case, it’s hard to see Cantor moving up the leadership ladder any time soon.

Mitch McConnell/Harry Reid/Nancy Pelosi: At first glance, it might seem odd to put the Senate Majority and Minority leaders as well as the House Minority Leader in a single category. But, from a purely political perspective, the interests of McConnell, Reid and Pelosi are quite similar.

Each member of the trio is wary of drastically altering the political environment heading into the 2012 election.

McConnell has said as much, acknowledging in a radio interview that “I refuse to help Barack Obama get reelected by marching Republicans into a position where we have co-ownership of a bad economy.”

Pelosi and Reid have been less blunt — but only slightly. Late last week, when it became clear that the negotiations between Obama and Boehner included the possibility of cuts to entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security, congressional Democrats fumed at the idea they might lose the political high ground on Medicare — an issue they believe is a silver bullet against the GOP in 2012.

Put simply, McConnell, Pelosi and Reid all want a relatively small-bore deal that avoids the potential economic crisis but otherwise leaves as little footprint as possible on the current political landscape.

Tea Party House Republicans: From the moment Republicans re-took control of the House in 2010, the debt ceiling fight has been seen as the first major test of how committed tea party-aligned members are to their cause.

That question has already been, largely, answered as there will almost certainly will be a bloc of House Republicans — including presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann — who will vote against any legislation that includes a debt ceiling increase.

What’s at stake now for the tea party is a test of just how influential they can be with their colleagues who were elected either before 2010 or without aligning themselves as closely to the movement.

The rapid rise of Bachmann in the presidential race may well function as a bit of a warning sign for establishment congressional Republicans about the dangers of getting on the wrong side of the energy within the party on the debt issue.

How many House Republicans will vote against ANY deal? 40? 50? That will be a major gauge of how much sway the tea party carries within the halls of Congress these days.

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