Why Obama Has Already Won the Debt-Limit Fight

July 15 (Bloomberg) — I get the feeling that it’s all over but the shouting. We may look back and say that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s convoluted parliamentary “backup plan” marked the effective end of the 2011 debt-ceiling crisis. The winner? President Barack Obama.

Sure, an agreement this month on reducing the deficit would be preferable for restoring confidence in the economy and for the president’s legacy. Obama has told lawmakers they need to decide by Friday if a bargain is possible. But even if the parties miraculously strike a deal in the Cabinet Room, the votes aren’t there on Capitol Hill to pass it.

The plan offered by McConnell this week does what Obama and the Republicans claimed they want to avoid: It kicks the can down the road again. Republicans in both houses — not to mention online and on the airwaves — were furious about his proposal, and McConnell even backpedaled from it a bit. But they have nothing else to fall back on.

If you went into the congressional kitchen to cook up the perfect Washington fudge, this is what you’d get. Instead of “doing something big” about the deficit, McConnell is proposing to do nothing — then blame the other side.

It’s a sign of how ungovernable the country has become that something resembling this scheme is now the most practical way forward.

Best Political Outcome

Yet politically, an elaborate fudge is the best possible outcome both for Republicans who talked themselves onto a ledge and for a president facing an imminent disaster and recalcitrant opposition that spits on the word “compromise.”

McConnell concluded that his party needed cover for a strategic retreat. Under his Rube Goldberg meets Robert’s Rules of Order scenario, Congress would give the president the authority to raise the debt ceiling in three increments, then disapprove of his action, then sustain his veto of the disapproval with few if any Republican votes. (McConnell acknowledged that Republicans wouldn’t have the two-thirds required to override Obama’s veto.)

His little maneuver — hard for even wonks to follow in detail — wouldn’t make Obama “own” the deficit, as McConnell hopes. But it would allow Republicans to say they voted against an increase in the debt ceiling while sparing them blame for causing a catastrophic default.

You can see why the idea might also appeal to the president, though he will accept only one vote, not the prolonged torture of three that McConnell proposes. It’s not a bad way out for him. The “Big Fudge” would let him frost his cake and eat it, too.

Generous Offers Rejected

Over the past few days, Obama has shown that he’s willing to sacrifice Democratic sacred cows. He hasn’t released a detailed official plan; he’s too cagey for that. But sketchy reports of possible cuts have leaked. Among them: a switch to using chained CPI for Social Security (which would adjust the calculation of the Consumer Price Index in a way that cuts benefits); an increase in the age for Medicare eligibility from 65 to 67; cuts in student loans and reimbursements for hospitals; and the elimination of the cherished last-in, first- out accounting methods, which enable businesses to reduce their taxable income.

Even if those huge items weren’t on his list, he’s offering about $3 trillion in spending cuts over 10 years, with an additional $1 trillion in revenue increases, mostly in the form of greatly reducing the myriad favors for corporations embedded in the tax code.

Thus the 3:1 ratio that some liberals view as overly solicitous to the opposition and that right-wingers (I can’t bear to call them conservatives because they’re not, in any traditional sense) see as a violation of their religious conviction that no taxes of any kind must ever be raised on anyone by anyone for any purpose, even if the future of the country is at stake.

A Winning Message

The good news for Obama is that the more liberals, lobbyists and apologists for the rich squawk, the more fiscally responsible he looks to the independent voters who will determine the election.

Better yet, under McConnell’s plan Obama would get credit for good budgetary intentions without blame for the pain, which will remain theoretical for now. At the risk of mixing dessert and vegetables, the “Big Fudge” lets him pose as a responsible pea eater without actually ingesting any of the wrinkled little suckers.

You can hear the centrist 2012 message now. “We wanted to slash the debt by $4 trillion and protect our children’s future,” the Democrats will say, conveniently forgetting how loud they’re bellyaching this week about their own president’s proposed cuts. “But the Republicans killed responsible deficit reduction to protect corporate jet owners.”

Republican Miscalculations

Republicans are under the mistaken impression the public shares their conviction that tax increases are universally unacceptable, no matter how necessary. With polls showing public support for tax increases on the wealthy, the fallout from Republicans rejecting a deal could help ease the pressure on Obama of 9 percent unemployment. And by avoiding the painful Medicare and Medicaid cuts he was prepared to make part of the deal, Obama can resume campaigning against Representative Paul Ryan’s unpopular Medicare privatization plan.

Hope for a last minute grand bargain isn’t entirely gone, but it’s close. Even if your average Tea Party voter would take $4 trillion in deficit reduction over tax favors for the rich any day, the Republican Party continues to make its bottom line clear: Tax cuts uber alles.

They thought Obama would budge. They were wrong, now it’s fudge.

So the president will probably win this bitter round. Then, look for him to begin de-emphasizing the deficit and move at last toward a jobs agenda that shows he’s in touch with the country’s biggest concern. It’s about time.

Jonathan Alter, the author of “The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope,” is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Copyright Bloomberg 2011


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