The Wall Street Journal's editorial page has been a consistently reliable source of sensible, intelligent, conservative opinion for decades. The Journal's criticisms of President Obama and his deeply misguided policies have been surgical in their precision, and admirable in their relentlessness. Therefore, conservatives of all stripes should sit up and take notice of today's house editorial, which proffers a spirited defense of Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell's controversial "fall-back" debt proposal. While much of the conservative blogosphere reacted to McConnell's plan with unvarnished rage (my take was skeptical, but not entirely unsympathetic), the WSJ's editors have leapt to the Kentucky Senator's defense, urging the "hotter precincts" of the interwebs and Righty talk radio to cool it, and "think before they shout." Here's why:
The reality is that Mr. Obama is trying to present Republicans with a Hobson's choice: Either repudiate their campaign pledge by raising taxes, or take the blame for any economic turmoil and government shutdown as the U.S. nears a debt default. In the former case Mr. Obama takes the tax issue off the table and demoralizes the tea party for 2012, and in the latter he makes Republicans share the blame for 9.2% unemployment.
This is the political context in which to understand Mr. McConnell's proposal yesterday to force Mr. Obama to take ownership of any debt-limit increase. If the President still insists on a tax increase, then Republicans will walk away from the talks.
The entitlement state can't be reformed by one house of Congress in one year against a determined President and Senate held by the other party. It requires more than one election. The Obama Democrats have staged a spending blowout to 24% of GDP and rising, and now they want to find a way to finance it to make it permanent. Those are the real stakes of 2012.
Even if Mr. Obama gets his debt-limit increase without any spending cuts, he will pay a price for the privilege. He'll have reinforced his well-earned reputation as a spender with no modern peer. He'll own the record deficits and fast-rising debt. And he'll own the U.S. credit-rating downgrade to AA if Standard & Poor's so decides.
We'd far prefer a bipartisan deal to cut spending and reform entitlements without a tax increase. But if Mr. Obama won't go along, there's no reason Republicans should help him dodge the political consequences by committing debt-limit harakiri.
Mitch McConnell is right now talking about making a historic capitulation. So fearful of being blamed for a default, McConnell is proposing a compromise that lets Barack Obama raise the debt ceiling without making any spending cuts at all.
Consider sending McConnell a weasel as testament to his treachery. His address is 601 W. Broadway, Room 630, Louisville, KY 40202 and the phone number is (502) 582-6304. McConnell’s idea is to make the debt ceiling automatic unless Congress, by a 2/3 vote blocks the increase. Oh yes, he put a salve on it by dressing it up in tough talk that, to quote the Wall Street Journal, “[a] ‘real solution’ to U.S. fiscal problems isn’t possible as long as President Barack Obama remains in office.” So since no “real solution” is possible, McConnell proposes to go Pontius Pilate and wash his hands of spending, blaming Obama while doing nothing himself.
instead of putting the burden on the White House, McConnell would make it damn near impossible to block a debt ceiling increase. We’ve seen this before. The House once had the Gephardt rule that required the debt ceiling vote be attached to a more popular measure so members of Congress could escape a tough vote.
Consequently, the debt ceiling has gone up to $14 trillion without Congress ever having to make a tough choice about debt. And now Mitch McConnell wants to make it even easier by allowing Congress to go through a dog and pony show of feigned cuts that never get cut while allowing escalation of our national debt. So much for accusing Barack Obama of smoke and mirrors. 2014 cannot come soon enough to destroy the political future of this weasel.
Who makes the better argument? I'll also toss in this question: Even if one sides with the WSJ on this, why would McConnell reveal his cards this early in the process? If McConnell, Inc. truly see this plan as a last gasp alternative, why reveal it so soon? Doesn't its very existence undermine GOP negotiations toward a better deal? The counterpoint to this somewhat accusatory line of questioning, of course, is that McConnell has concluded (correctly, I might say) that the White House is ultimately so unserious about agreeing to real cuts and reform that holding out for a "better" compromise is a fool's errand. The best evidence for this point of view was described in my post from yesterday:
Sen. McConnell has been in talks with Obama and Democrats. We wanted to do something serious and big. Yesterday, he asked point blank how much the Biden-led deal would actually cut from next year's budget. The answer he received was $2 Billion, and it's all smoke and mirrors. In exchange, [Democrats] want $1 Trillion in tax hikes. It's not the kind of deal we're at all interested in. We won't accept guaranteed tax hikes in exchange for fantasy future spending cuts.
$2 Billion. With a "B." If the vaunted grand deal proposes slashing a preposterously low $2 Billion from next year's budget -- which will rack up an annual deficit north of $1 Trillion -- is it even remotely worth pursuing? Confronted with this insane figure, is it any wonder McConnell concluded good-faith debt negotiations with this White House are a complete waste of time?
UPDATE - The Weekly Standard's Stephen Hayes has authored the best-argued case against the McConnell plan I've seen thus far. Read the WSJ editorial and Hayes' piece back-to-back, and make a call.
UPDATE II - Another 'pause and consider' moment -- the New York Times editorial board also appears willing to stomach McConnell's plan, albeit far less enthusiastically than the Journal:
All Mr. McConnell wants is the ability to yoke the debt increase to Mr. Obama, and his offer gives him two extra chances to do so. He hopes the maneuver will help his party win back the Senate and the White House, which remains a long shot. But at least he is no longer holding the economy hostage to his goals. It is now time for the House to reach a similar conclusion.