July 28, 2011

I wish I could say this was a time for patriots of every stripe to come together to put our fiscal house in order. But this is not that time. This is a time for scared politicians of every stripe to walk themselves back from the brink with a face-saving ploy that sidesteps a crisis. Mitch McConnell, bless his calculating heart, understood this sooner than anyone.

Let’s review who needs what at this hour:

●The House Tea Party caucus needs big discretionary spending cuts that exceed any debt limit increase, no tax increases, no GOP approval of a higher debt ceiling and something that looks like a fundamental change in entitlement spending — which means they need another debt-ceiling showdown before the 2012 election as a forcing device to enact at least a blueprint for such reforms.

●The White House needs something that can be called a “substantial down payment” on deficit reduction, which, when paired with their ability to cast Republicans as unreasonably opposed to fair tax increases on hedge fund managers, oil companies and corporate jet owners, will suffice for the president’s campaign. But the White House cannot abide more debt ceiling votes during 2012. Even if voters tend to blame the GOP for these clashes, a president who presides over 18 months of endless near-chaos looks fatally weak.

●The Senate will bless whatever the House and the president can agree to. This shorthand doesn’t credit the constructive work that Harry Reid and various gangs have been up to, but that’s the bottom line.

Given all this, what gets us past today’s pickle? The original McConnell gambit was fiendishly clever in letting Republicans “disapprove” of any debt-ceiling increase, but it didn’t have spending cuts. However, you could easily graft a form of McConnell onto some version of either John Boehner’s or Harry Reid’s discretionary spending cuts, which both amount to a trillion or so dollars over 10 years (once you back out of Reid’s “cuts” the absence of baseline spending projected in Iraq and Afghanistan). Trimmed from a total of about $45 trillion in planned spending over the next decade, the republic will survive.

Despite dueling CBO scores and caucus revolts, these two dimensions — the “down payment on deficit reduction” and the “disapproval” — are pretty straightforward. The real sticking point is whether the debt limit increase gets us past the 2012 election. That’s what this fight is coming down to. And both sides are understandably entrenched.

Take the Tea Partyers. Even if they’ve been reminded by an angry John Boehner that they can’t expect to change the world while holding only the House, the freshmen have already seen that they can indeed transform the national debate by holding the economy hostage. Why wouldn’t they want another bite at that apple before Election Day? My own view is that House Republicans have been reckless and hypocritical (the latter because they’ve all voted for the Ryan budget that adds $5 trillion to the debt in the next decade, a fact the White House has been too witless to have hammered home). Still, as an exercise of raw power, Tea Party stubbornness does reveal a certain (misguided) integrity.

Yet Obama simply can’t allow an outcome in which the election takes place amid an ongoing drama of potential default.

What can resolve this impasse? I see four scenarios:

(1) The House could voluntarily give on this demand for a debt-ceiling sequel (but I don’t see why they would). (2) Obama could invoke the 14th Amendment when D-Day comes and dare Congress to take him to court. (I’m with Bill Clinton on this — the president should do this if necessary — but I’m not sure Obama has the stomach for a constitutional crisis that blankets the campaign). (3) A market plunge forces a deal that gets us past 2012 — but only after inflicting enormous damage on millions of Americans and the economy at large.

Or — bear with me here — (4) Congress and the White House sign off on a trillion or so in spending cuts and a debt-ceiling increase now, and agree to a coin toss next year to determine whether or not we revisit this issue in the 2012 campaign. Heads, the debt limit is automatically extended by whatever it takes to get us into 2013; tails, we have a replay of the past few months. (Think of the cable-news ratings on toss night!)

I know this sounds ridiculous. But is it any more ridiculous than where Republican radicalism and Democratic rope-a-dope have left us — a choice between a constitutional crisis and a global economic meltdown?

Seen this way, agreeing to a coin toss later — which fits with all-American notions of fair play when it comes to settling intractable disputes — could be the safety valve that gets us past this surreal moment. It’ll buy us six or nine months, the proverbial “several lifetimes” in politics, by which time passions may cool or other issues may intrude — and meanwhile millions of us will have signed up for Americans Elect’s online nominating convention to put an independent ticket on the ballot that offers an alternative to this madness.

I’d be happy to have a super-committee of Congress develop rules for the coin toss (first one to seven, perhaps — tied to the Super Bowl kickoff?) or substitute another game of chance. A roll of the dice might be apt, as a metaphor for the hash that Washington has made of economic policy.

Crazy. But these are crazy times. If you’ve got a better idea for the endgame, I’m listening.