The simplistic, if understandable, answer to that question for many conservatives is right now. The national debt has surpassed our GDP, we're borrowing 40 cents of every dollar we spend, and our unpaid-for federal obligations already exceed $80 trillion. We're in dire straits; there's no escaping that. But there's also no escaping certain political realities: The public isn't feeling especially charitable toward Congressional Republicans these days, Democrats control 55 Senate seats, and this president will occupy the Oval Office for the next four years. If the GOP is seeking to apply pressure on the Left to improve our fiscal trajectory -- while convincing the American people of the righteousness of their cause -- smart strategy and execution is crucial. So I ask, is the imminent debt limit expiration the wisest leverage point to try to exploit over the coming weeks and months? On my radio show last weekend, I interviewed former White House speechwriter and conservative thinker Pete Wehner on this topic. Pete is opposed to the idea of Republicans using the debt ceiling debate to try to extract any concessions from Democrats. I asked him if perhaps a better approach would be to follow Sen. Jeff Sessions' lead and try to use the big, public debt limit argument to shame Democrats into finally returning to normal order by passing a budget for the first time in nearly four years. Wouldn't Republicans occupy the political and legal high ground by making that rather narrow demand? Pete's initial response and deeper analysis are worthwhile:
GB: Do you think that would be a reasonable tactic?
PW: No, I don't -- and I should say that I agree with all of that. I really think that government needs to be re-limited, so this is really just a tactical and prudential judgment. The reason is that I just don't believe that at the end of the day (and let's assume that Obama's obstinate, which I think you can assume he will be) do we really believe that if the Democrats don't pass a budget, which they haven't done for four years, the Republicans are really not going to vote to raise the debt ceiling? With all of the dislocation that would cause? I just don't think it would happen. I don't even think it would be responsible to do it. But whether I think so or not, I can almost guarantee you that you're not going to find enough Republicans to hold firm. That when you get down to the last hour and Obama says 'no, and these people are willing to let us default simply because the Senate won't pass a budget,' I think we're going to lose that fight. I think you're right to this extent, which is we have to find some ground to make this argument...I'm not an expert on the tactics, but what I think we should do is a combination of things: Pass legislation that says the debt service payments will be made, so you take that off the board, and you don't allow the Democrats to make that charge.
GB: Yeah, but I don't even think that works because the Republicans in the House passed an extension of all the Bush tax rates, and Democrats still said 'look the Republicans aren't acting and middle class Americans are going to lose their tax cuts because of these awful Republicans' -- even though the Republicans had done their job. So Republicans can pass bills all they want. They can pass budgets all they want. But if Democrats pretend like they don't exist...
PW: Look, Republicans are going to vote to raise the debt ceiling. I guarantee that, so they're going to get there eventually. So my counsel, under the banner of prudence, is to get there earlier, and not to do it in a showdown -- where you've alienated the public...and then you collapse. So you have the worst of all worlds. Which is 'they're nihilistic, they're huffing and puffing, and then they collapse.' Secondly, it's not that I wouldn't use leverage to try and get cuts made, I just think that unfortunately the sequencing is very bad. We've got the debt ceiling debate before the continuing resolution and sequestration. Those things are going to come; that's much stronger ground for Republicans to make the argument as you are. If you're going to make that fight, you've got to...the term of art is you have to be willing to shoot the hostage. Republicans won't do it on the debt ceiling issue. I don't think that they should. But if you got to, say, sequestration, I do think that Republicans have a much stronger hand because the Obama administration and the president himself don't want sequestration. And the Republicans do....you've got to have a cost-benefit analysis. We're not going to get real entitlement reforms out of this president. That's the cost of losing an election.
GB: Points well taken. You might be right about the timing of the debt ceiling vs. sequestration vs. the CR. My point is that at some point you have to have the giant fight. You have to put your stake in the ground.
PW: I just want to have that giant fight on the ground that's best for us.
The more I think about it, the more I tend to agree with Pete. Republicans need to identify the terrain that will maximize both their leverage and their ability to win the public debate against the president. If you haven't noticed Obama's ability to adroitly demonize his opponents to great political effect, you haven't been paying attention. With the purported threat of catastrophic "default" -- with all its implications for our already-imperiled credit rating -- hanging over the debt limit debate, Obama will relentlessly accuse the GOP of threatening to crash the economy. The press will largely play along with this narrative; during yesterday's White House press conference, many of the questions were already premised on the assumption that Republicans are the reckless actors in the dispute. Few reporters will mention Obama's grandstanding vote against raising the debt ceiling seven years (and more than $8 trillion) ago. Fewer still will explain what does, and does not, constitute an actual credit default. Instead, Republicans will be seen as putting the full faith and credit of the United States government in graver trouble, with potentially far-reaching consequences. I also believe they'd endure all that calumny before eventually buckling -- a lose-lose, as framed by Wehner. Here's an alternative plan, inspired by the Wehner calculus:
(1) Give the president a sizable, no-strings-attached debt limit increase. Sooner rather than later. (I recognize this is a very bitter pill to swallow). In doing so, repeatedly emphasize two points. First, that Republicans went along with Obama's frivolous and counter-productive tax-hike-on-the-rich scheme to avoid the fiscal cliff, receiving virtually nothing in return. Considering the stakes for tens of millions of middle class Americans, this was the responsible choice -- even though it was an extremely unpleasant ideological concession. (Lesson: "Revenues" and "fairness" are now on the books, and thus off the table in upcoming debates). Second, that the president's last request for a $2.1 Trillion debt ceiling increase came just a year-and-a-half ago, yet Washington's rapacious spending habits have already exhausted every last dime of those funds. (Lesson: Spending is the problem). Yes, this would essentially constitute two consecutive episodes of Republicans acquiescing to Obama's demands, with little to show in return. Yes, this would anger some in the base, and it could prompt threats of primary challenges, etc. But it's only act one.
(2) Allow the $1.2 trillion sequester to go into effect in early March. Don't negotiate over it, despite its very troubling defense cuts. Remember, it's the delayed byproduct of 2011's debt deal, and Democrats should not be allowed to pretend that it's part of a "new" agreement on spending reductions. The Super Committee failed. The White House suggested these automatic cuts, assuming that they'd never happen. They are imperfect, real, and overdue reductions in spending. "Shoot" that "hostage" of the president's own making.
(3) Throw down over the expiration of the current continuing resolution (CR) in late March. The CR is the latest in an interminable string of temporary measures to fund the federal government in the absence of "normal order" -- ie, passing budgets and appropriations bills. This is the way things are supposed to work, but haven't for nearly four years. At this stage, Republicans will have cooperated with President Obama by reluctantly indulging his tax "fairness" fetish and by staving off "default" by ignoring Senator Obama's 2006 advice on the debt ceiling. Sure, the possibility of a partial government shutdown would still be in the air, but that's a "hostage" that could also plausibly be "shot." Republicans could aggressively point to their previous concessions while drawing their line in the sand at this lower-stakes, but still meaningful, crossroads. The expiration of yet another stop-gap federal funding gimmick would present an ideal opportunity to enter a full court press on the Democrats' serial budget abdications, with budget season fast approaching. This effort would be advanced against the backdrop of the president's recent and wholly inadequate "soak the rich" tax package, while another high profile and unsettling increase of the national debt limit would remain fresh in the public's collective mind. Democrats would surely ramp up their scare tactics about the effects of a government "shut down," but those could be batted away if Republicans can unite around the persuasive arguments of Sen. Pat Toomey (replace his references to the debt ceiling with "the CR expiration" -- the same arguments apply):
Toomey has also blazed a helpful path on how to defuse Democrats' fear-mongering over what could happen if the government partially shuts down. The president previewed this brand of demagoguery during yesterday's press conference:
If congressional Republicans refuse to pay America’s bills on time, Social Security checks, and veterans benefits will be delayed. We might not be able to pay our troops, or honor our contracts with small business owners. Food inspectors, air traffic controllers, specialist who track down loose nuclear materials wouldn’t get their paychecks.
Republicans should follow Toomey's lead by passing (and vigorously touting) legislation that would prioritize government payments during a partial shut-down. All the easily-demagogable spending items could be covered -- debt servicing, paychecks for our troops and air traffic controllers, Medicare and Social Security checks, etc. These measures would mitigate the public backlash that Democrats will inevitably go into overdrive to stoke. In sum, this order of events isn't foolproof, especially because it would require three elements that have been in short supply on the GOP side of the aisle: Patience for a slightly longer play, unity, and robust, tireless messaging. There's an important argument to be won here; loud threats of "primarying" apostates, rogue legislative 'independent contracting,' and muddled or muzzled messaging will undercut the task at hand. Does the Republican Party want to serve as an organized, effective conservative opposition -- or are they willing to remain an unpopular jumbled mess that gets outfoxed by ruthless and disciplined Democrats at every turn? It's time to either get serious or get accustomed to being an ineffective, marginalized minority.
UPDATE - Ed Morrissey is promoting a similar plan in his column at The Week. Meanwhile, the editors at National Review offer an interesting take on how to extend -- but fundamentally transform -- the debt limit.