In praise of McConnell’s plan
Mitch McConnell’s debt-ceiling proposal isn’t getting very good reviews. In a conversation with me a few moments ago, Kent Conrad, a moderate Democrat who chairs the Senate Budget Committee, called it “totally and completely irresponsible.” Newt Gingrich tweets that it’s “an irresponsible surrender to big government, big deficits and continued overspending.” Kevin Drum writes that “the whole thing is so patently, ridiculously political that it’s breathtaking.”
Me? I kinda like it.
I should say that I don’t know why House Republicans would go for it and it seems clear that this is going to be a big black eye for McConnell. But that doesn’t make it a bad plan. In essence, McConnell is proposing to permanently disarm the bomb that is the debt ceiling. He’d formalize the informal arrangement the parties have had in recent years, which is that the debt ceiling is used to embarrass the party in power, but it’s not allowed to threaten the American economy. If his plan passed, it’d become easier for the minority party to embarrass the majority party, but harder for them to threaten the economy. It’s win-win.
If you want to take a generous view of McConnell’s motivations here, you’d say that the canny Kentuckian, whose understanding of the way polarization and party discipline dominate today’s congress vastly exceeds that of any other politician, realized that it was no longer safe to assume that the two parties would always reach agreement in time to lift the debt ceiling, and in that world, the debt ceiling was too dangerous to the American economy.
The cynical interpretation of McConnell’s motivations is that McConnell sees that the White House is winning the politics of this issue, and he knows that Republicans will eventually be forced to agree to something. When they do, President Obama will be the great Compromiser-in-Chief. He’ll have shown himself willing to face down his party to make a deal and he’ll get credit for making it impossible for Republicans to continue to say no. After three years during which McConnell had slowly but surely destroyed Obama’s reputation as a postpartisan unifier, the White House will see its core political brand revived and invigorated. Obama will be a lock for reelection.
For someone who said “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president,” that’s an unacceptable outcome. McConnell’s plan might not get the GOP a good deal, but it means Obama and the Democrats have to keep taking embarrassing votes, and that makes it, in theory, more likely that Obama and the Democrats lose the next election.
I’d imagine that some in the White House actually agree with this analysis. If I had to bet right now, I’d say that Obama is going to reject McConnell’s plan. “The American people sent us here to make the hard decisions,” he’ll say. That might serve his short-term political needs well. But it serves the country poorly.
Whether he’s responding to congressional dysfunction or demonstrating it, McConnell’s proposal is still a way of limiting the damage it can do to the economy. That the very forces that make it necessary make it impossible to pass seems obvious, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t pass. McConnell is giving us a way out of the hole we’ve dug for ourselves, and if the day ever comes that the two parties fail to raise the debt ceiling and the markets turn on us — something that may not be likely this year, but could well happen in time -- we’re going to wish we’d taken it.