Analysis: Though Frustrating, 'Clean' Debt Ceiling Vote Was Least Bad Move

Posted: Feb 13, 2014 10:38 AM

"Least bad" isn't exactly a stirring endorsement, but it fits the bill here. Anyone who isn't a debt denialist is aware that the federal government spending and obligations problem is real, and will only grow worse if left unaddressed. President Obama has presided over close to $7 trillion in new debt, trillions more than President Bush's eight-year accumulation -- which Obama termed "unpatriotic" in 2008. As ugly as the $17 trillion debt tower looks today, the truly frightening problem looms just over the horizon. Uncle Sam's tsunami of unpaid-for promises is building up, and unless Washington tackles reform -- and soon -- no amount of tax increases can fend off a crash. Major, popular entitlement programs like Social Security, and especially Medicare, will become insolvent. Only one political party has demonstrated even the slightest bit of seriousness on these issues, while the other has cynically exploited them for transient electoral advantage.

Put bluntly, we're in trouble. Which is why House (and some Senate) Republicans' decision to allow Democrats to pass a roughly $1 trillion, unconditional debt ceiling increase galls so many conservatives. Yes, the vast, vast majority of the votes to do so came from Democrats, but the GOP allowed it to happen. Why? Partly because they couldn't agree on a unified counter-proposal. Unity is crucial in politics, and it's sorely lacking within the center-right coalition. The bigger reason, though, was that this was a fight Republicans had zero chance of winning. Thus, the political downsides of manning the political battle stations for this skirmish far outweighed any (virtually non-existent) upside. I had a spirited exchange on this point with Neil Cavuto yesterday:

The so-called "Boehner Rule" -- one dollar of cuts for every dollar of debt limit increase -- makes all the sense in the world, but is evidently now dead. Democrats and the White House won the last fight, and the GOP sustained a nasty public opinion beating. Republicans' fortunes experienced an immediate reversal, however, when Obamacare began its implosion. As I said to Neil, in no political universe would it have made sense for Congressional Republicans to re-fight a battle they just lost (and were certain to lose again), drive up their negatives, and throw a lifeline to Democrats who are desperate to talk about anything other than Obamacare. It would have been political malpractice of the highest order for Republicans to divert the public's attention from the Obamacare CBO report and the president's latest delay clusterfark -- especially to an issue on which Democrats have an advantage. And especially when the GOP caucus was divided and unable to coalesce around any unified policy demand. Personally, I would have liked to have seen votes forced on the Keystone pipeline or the Obamacare bailout scheme, but Republicans couldn't get themselves on the same page. Entering a quixotic battle with a divided team is pure madness. Therefore, this deeply unsatisfying resolution at least side steps the party's at-times suicidal impulses. And it wasn't just the leadership who reached that conclusion; some of the House's most conservative members ended up pushing for a "clean" vote, with Democrats providing the lion's share of the 'ayes.' Thus, your political denouement: Let the Democrats own and hike the debt limit, hammer on Obamacare, and win the election. As far as options and outcomes go, Republicans could have done a lot worse.

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