Matt Miller
Matt Miller
Opinion Writer

Obama’s trump card on the debt limit

Mr. President, it’s unbecoming for a columnist to beg, but since you’ve ruled out “going constitutional” on the debt limit, and CEOs won’t flex enough muscle to stop Republicans from using it for blackmail again, I’m down on my knees.  You simply have to enlist the press to generate a roar of protest against GOP hypocrisy and recklessness here — or else doom us to lurching painfully (and pathetically) from “fiscal cliff” to “debt cliff” for months. 

The good news is this can be done with an investment of a mere five minutes of your time. So here’s a plan.

Matt Miller

A senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the host of the new podcast “This...Is Interesting,” Miller writes a weekly column for The Post.

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The linchpin of the Republican argument is that the debt limit represents their only leverage to curb your insatiable spending appetites — the only way to deny you a blank check that soaks the nation in debt. “We’re not going to let Obama borrow any more money .... until we fix this country from becoming Greece,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.c) in a typical blast Monday on Fox News. “Every big idea he has is a liberal idea that drowns us in debt.”

To listen to the GOP, in other words, you’d think they support budgets that don’t add much to the debt at all. This is demonstrably, laughably, even shockingly false. But only a president can emblazon this fact on America’s consciousness and move it to the center of the conversation. Once you do, it will force Republicans to alter their calculations in the current showdown. 

The way to do this is to propose (in a bipartisan spirit, if you’re feeling sly) that the debt limit be raised just by the amount it would take to accommodate the debt Republicans voted for in Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget last year — $6 trillion over the next decade.

This fabulous fact proves beyond question (Sen. Mitch McConnell’s griping to the contrary aside) that the debt-ceiling clash has nothing to do with shrinking the debt.  Raising the ceiling is about acknowledging what both parties know — that under any fiscal scenario, we need a glide path back to balanced budgets after the outsized recession-induced deficits we’ve incurred. 

I’ve ranted about this little publicized $6 trillion fact before, but I’m just a pundit.  My obsessions spawn a few links and tweets. As president, however, if you make this point a staple of your public comments in the days ahead, it will dominate press coverage and put Republicans on the run.  

How might you proceed?

● Let the TV cameras in briefly before you and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) meet, and allow one question Jay Carney has planted on the debt ceiling. Then say: “My latest offer to John is that we raise the debt ceiling just by what it would take to accommodate the debt in the Ryan budget Republicans voted for last year. Most people don’t realize Republicans voted for $6 trillion in new debt over the next decade. I think honoring their vote on the debt is a fair way to resolve this — any other posture would mean they’re using the debt ceiling as a form of extortion. I won’t allow that, and I’m sure John would agree it would be destabilizing for world markets.”

● As you cross the White House lawn to the helicopter, take one question on the debt ceiling and say : “Given that Republicans all voted for $6 trillion in new debt in their budget last year, I think most Americans would agree its hypocritical for them not to raise the ceiling now.”

● Go to the press room by surprise one day and make a brief statement: “As we proceed in these talks and the debt ceiling comes into focus, there’s one thing people need to understand: Republicans voted last year to add $6 trillion in new debt over the next decade. I’m prepared to honor their debt target, and if they pass it today, we can all join in reassuring world markets that the debt limit won’t be used for anything that resembles blackmail.” Take no questions.

See? There are so many ways to make this newsy and dramatic.

It’s impossible to overstate the impact a few such presidential utterances would have on media coverage. The major newspapers would all do front-page analyses of the debt in the GOP budget and echo your point that it thus seems the height of hypocrisy to use the debt ceiling as a negotiating ploy. It would become a fixture of MSNBC’s daily diet, and, by sending a few officials to discuss this on Fox News, you’d assure that conservative hosts and viewers would be forced to confront this $6 trillion dilemma as well.

When Paul Ryan replies that “our $6 trillion in debt is better than the $7 or $8 trillion the president wants,” he’ll have conceded the point. Fox News’s Chris Wallace, Bret Baier and Megyn Kelly will ask GOP leaders “What gives?” Boehner and McConnell will be left saying “. . .but we need leverage.” They’ll be playing on your turf.

Like I said, Mr. President, I don’t mean to plead, but consider the stakes. The failure to win the communications war over Obamacare had devastating consequences for your first term. Blowing the communications war on the debt ceiling could wreck your second. You have the power to transform this debate overnight.  Please, sir, use it.

Matt Miller is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and co-host of public radio’s “Left, Right & Center.” His e-mail address is mattino2@gmail.com.

 
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