Only four men alive truly understand the exquisitely Solomonic dilemma facing President Obama on the debt ceiling.
The fate of the economy — or at least the blame for it — rests more with him than with anyone else. He cannot let the baby be cut in two.
But the potential costs of being forced to accept draconian cuts or to endure a repeat of the debacle six months from now are as painful as giving up the child to the imposter mother.
All this may explain the diffidence of the presidential veto threat. The president won’t sign a short-term, can-kicking extension, the White House says. Yet the president shied away from that threat in his no-real-news prime-time address Monday.
The next day, the administration issued the not-quite-full-throated version of a veto threat. In contrast to the no-loopholes statement issued about the House “cut, cap and balance” plan — “he would veto it” — this warning was a rhetorical notch below. Presented with the latest proposal by House Speaker John Boehner, this statement read, “the president’s senior advisors would recommend that he veto this bill.”
I don’t begrudge the White House its wiggle room — indeed, it’s wise to leave some. With an economic gun to his head, would the president really be right to veto a deal?
Of course, it shouldn’t come to this, which is where the former presidents — two Democrats, two Republicans — could play a useful role. They don’t have to write detailed legislative language, just agree to a framework that would include the following:
●Default is unthinkable. Those who argue that it is not imperative to raise the debt ceiling are dangerously misguided.
●The debt ceiling offers a useful moment for action on the debt. If a grand bargain is not within reach, it is reasonable at least to secure a down payment on debt reduction. Although a blend of spending cuts and increased tax revenue would be the optimal approach, a cuts-only first round is acceptable under the circumstances. Both sides have agreed to such cuts, in the range of about $1 trillion.
●Third, there is no reason to demand a dollar-for-dollar ratio of spending cuts to increases in the debt ceiling. The need to raise the debt limit reflects obligations already incurred. Raising the debt ceiling is paying what’s due on the existing mortgage, not taking out a new one.
●Fourth, the current standoff is dangerous. It would be folly to repeat it before the election — not to help one political party but to protect the economy from another debilitating showdown in the heat of an election year. The far healthier approach is to make the 2012 election a referendum on the best way to approach debt reduction.
For Democrats Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, signing on to such a statement should be a no-brainer. The magnitude of the cuts and the absence of balance may be odious to elements of their party, but the bottom line of lifting the debt ceiling is not open to debate.
For Republicans George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, endorsing this approach would be more difficult. They would be breaking with their party’s congressional leaders and, arguably, giving up the opportunity for election-year leverage.
But both Bushes have proved themselves willing, when the occasion called for it, to rise above partisan politics and to throw off ideological straitjackets. Bush 41 famously jettisoned his read-my-lips pledge on taxes in the service of a deficit-reduction deal. Bush 43 shelved his free-market principles to bail out banks and save the economy.
Perhaps these examples suggest that their intervention on the debt ceiling would be less than compelling to the Tea Party wing of the GOP. Yet when former presidents talk, at least some in their parties tend to listen. Former presidents bring the gravitas of past service unmoored from future political ambitions.
The country has one president at a time. As a general matter, it’s bad practice for the formers to be telling the current how to do his job. It’s different, though, to stand by a predecessor. Presidential historian Michael Beschloss reminds me that when Clinton was pushing for the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, he enlisted five former presidents to back his push and welcomed three to the White House.
“These men, differing in party and outlook, join us today because we all recognize the important stakes for our nation in this issue,” Clinton said then.
Imagine the impact of a similar event now.