Yesterday I asked Sen. Marco Rubio how conservatives should prioritize the various skirmishes of the emerging multi-front budget war. As a "for instance," I asked whether it's worth spending significant political capital to win a short term budget fight (ie, on the 2011 CR), or if it makes more sense to husband that energy for a battle with more lasting implications (ie over the 2012 budget or raising the debt ceiling)?
Rubio -- who was speaking at an off-the-record event, but who subsequently gave me full permission to report the gist of his comments -- responded that it's a delicate calculus.
On one hand, he argued, the 2011 CR squabble involves tens of billions of dollars over a six month period. The 2012 budget and debt ceiling clashes have much higher stakes (trillions of dollars) with a much lengthier time horizon (years, if not decades). He said he understood how winning a knock-down, drag-out war over the CR could jeopardize the GOP's ability to exert meaningful leverage and play hardball on upcoming big ticket items. He also warned that allowing Democrats to continue to drag out the 2011 discussion muddies the waters for the other big debates, which could make it harder for Republicans to articulate a clear message to the American people.
On the other hand, Rubio conceded that if Republicans show themselves to be unwilling to win a game of chicken on the relatively small stuff (he mentioned the CR and the earmarks ban as examples), they may not have the credibility to get the job done when it really counts.
Rubio's overriding point was that the debt ceiling debate may represent Congressional Republicans' high water mark of leverage and bargaining power until after the 2012 elections. Given the pressing nature of the nation's fiscal crisis, he said it's essential that the GOP not squander this opportunity. He elaborated on this point in a recent Wall Street Journal Op/Ed:
"Raising America's debt limit is a sign of leadership failure." So said then-Sen. Obama in 2006, when he voted against raising the debt ceiling by less than $800 billion to a new limit of $8.965 trillion. As America's debt now approaches its current $14.29 trillion limit, we are witnessing leadership failure of epic proportions.
I will vote to defeat an increase in the debt limit unless it is the last one we ever authorize and is accompanied by a plan for fundamental tax reform, an overhaul of our regulatory structure, a cut to discretionary spending, a balanced-budget amendment, and reforms to save Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
Rubio enumerates each element of his solution in greater detail in the full piece.
On an unrelated note, Rubio was also asked if he'd consider accepting the VP slot in the 2012 presidential election (he had already ruled out a White House run of his own next year). His reply: "I'm not going to be the Vice Presidential nominee in 2012, and I'd really like to stop talking about it."
UPDATE - National Review editor Rich Lowry weighs in on the prioritization question:
It’d be foolish in my view to push it all the way into a shutdown that would be a high-risk and low-reward proposition, since the future of the country doesn’t depend on how many billions are shaved in discretionary spending this year or policy riders of six-month duration. Much more consequential is the debate over the debt limit, which gives Republicans the leverage to force serious spending restraint, and over the Ryan budget, which will attempt to set the predicate for putting the country on a fundamentally different fiscal path.