On debt-ceiling debate, GOP presidential candidates talk tough, walk softly

Candidates enjoy a luxury that those who actually hold office don’t have: They can take a stand without taking a position.

Eager to establish themselves as fiscal disciplinarians, the Republican candidates for president are all offering tough rhetoric in the debate over the federal debt ceiling.

But they have carefully avoided offering any messy — and divisive — details on how they would get the country out of the fix it will be in early next month if the government hits the limit of its borrowing authority.

“The answer for the country is for the president to agree to cut federal spending, to cap federal spending and to put in place a balanced budget amendment,” former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney told a Rotary Club in Portsmouth, N.H., last week. “If the president were to do those things, this whole debt issue would disappear.”

As the delicate negotiations in Washington have proceeded in starts and sputters, Romney — who is highlighting his business and economic expertise — has said that a default on government debt would be an emergency.

But he has declined to say whether he would support a grand compromise to avert one or whether he would prefer the more modest deal proposed by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) as a backup plan, which would raise it in three increments over more than a year.

Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty has said the McConnell plan would be merely “a Band-Aid on a broken bone” and that the government can find the cash to keep itself solvent for a while.

“Eventually you run out of money, but what you do is you buy yourself a bunch of time to have the debate about real reform,” he said in Iowa earlier this week.

Reps. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) and Ron Paul (Tex.) — the only two GOP candidates who will actually be called upon to vote on the question, by virtue of being a member of the House — have vowed not to support any increase in the debt ceiling.

Both were also among the nine House Republicans who voted Tuesday night against the “cut, cap and balance” bill that would reduce 2012 spending by more than $100 billion, cap it over the next decade and prohibit more government borrowing until Congress passed a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget. It has virtually no chance of passing the Senate, and President Obama has said he will veto it if it does.

Bachmann, a tea party champion, said it wouldn’t go far enough; Paul, a libertarian, said it wouldn’t live up to its promises.

The next morning, Bachmann stepped out under the broiling morning sun for a backyard chat in Norwalk, Iowa.

“I have just one question for you: How many of you want to see our government borrow more money that we don’t have so our government can keep spending it?” Bachmann asked the crowd of about 70 people. “Washington, D.C., has forgotten to listen to you, and you, and you, and you.”

The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, however, calls into question how well those who oppose lifting the debt ceiling are listening: More than eight in 10 respondents said they worry that there will be serious harm to the American economy if the government cannot borrow money after Aug. 2 to fund its operations and pay its debts.

It is not a surprise that the candidates are leery of delving too deeply into politically charged details at this point in the campaign season or drawing fine distinctions among their positions on the debt-limit question.

“In general, in campaigns, specifics are for late. Principles and broad visions are for early. And it’s still early,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who was a top economic policy adviser to Republican presidential nominee John McCain in 2008 but is not aligned with any of the contenders this time around.

“What they would like to have is the issue, and that’s the difference between them and the congressional leaders,” added Holtz-Eakin, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office. “They need an issue. The congressional leaders need a result.”

Moreover, they don’t want to needlessly alienate either the tea party faction of the party, which is urging a hard line against raising the debt ceiling, or the establishment conservatives, who worry that not lifting it would bring about an economic catastrophe.

So instead, they try to score points by talking around the hard choices.

“It’s like a technical foul in basketball,” said Alex Castellanos, a political consultant who advised Romney’s presidential campaign in 2008 and is unaffiliated in the 2012 race. “They can get the rhetorical benefit without the responsibility.”

Karen Tumulty is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where she received the 2013 Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting.
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