James C. Capretta, at National Review, has a sense of dÃ©jÃ vu all over again, as democrats artfully attempt to induce Congressional Republicans to blink, or to at least win the PR battle, in the confrontation over raising the federal debt ceiling. Republicans caved before, he points out, resulting in the election of William Jefferson Clinton to the presidency.
As the debt-ceiling showdown heads into its final stages, the political maneuvering has intensified, with both sides seeking to gain the upper hand in the public-relations war. Leaders from both parties know the stakes in this fight are very, very high; confrontations of this sort tend to become defining moments in political life, for good or ill. At this stage, anything could still happen, with many scenarios still in play. But for Republicans, there are reasons to worry that this showdown could be headed toward a political and fiscal debacle if they are not very careful.
It wouldnâ€™t be the first time Democrats got the better of Republicans in a budget fight. In 1990, Richard Darman, who was director of the Office of Management and Budget, wanted to strike a budget deal to bring projected budget deficits down by $500 billion over five years. As a precondition for entering the talks, however, Democratic Senate majority leader George Mitchell demanded that Pres. George H. W. Bush renege, in writing, on his â€œno new taxesâ€ pledge. The president did so at Darmanâ€™s urging, and from that moment on, the presidentâ€™s standing and leverage plummeted. At crucial moments in the ensuing process, the tax increases kept getting larger and more onerous, and the spending cuts and entitlement reforms kept getting more ephemeral. In the end, it was just a question of how bad the political fallout would be for the president, which of course turned out to be very bad indeed.
In the current fight, itâ€™s quite clear what President Obama and his allies are trying to accomplish. First, they want a package upon which the president can campaign in 2012. Something on the order of a â€œ$3 trillion deficit-cutting programâ€ (no matter how phony) â€” or even $2 trillion â€” would help the president downplay the big-spending, liberal image that most independent voters now have of him.
Second, the president wants to raise taxes without getting blamed for it. Hence the disingenuous cat-and-mouse games aimed at luring Republicans into accepting tax hikes behind closed doors so that the president never actually has to take ownership of them before they become law. Quite a trick if he can get away with it.
Third, and most important, Democrats want a deal that doesnâ€™t give an inch on what really matters to their voting base â€” which is the entitlement status quo. The Democratic party has come to define itself as the party of entitlements. The New Deal. The Great Society. Obamacare. Nothing gets the Democratic heart beating quite like ensnaring the entire American middle class in entitlement dependence. For Democrats, victory means forcing Republicans to accept a budget framework that leaves todayâ€™s entitlement superstructure â€” and most especially centralized government management of American health care â€” exactly as it is today. ….
It would be far better to find a way to cut whatever spending can be cut sensibly with some Democratic support, raise the debt limit modestly, and leave the big questions on entitlement reforms and taxes to the collective judgment of the voting public in 2012.
Glenn Reynolds adds:
So driving home from the gym just now, I heard Rush Limbaugh saying that if the GOP caves on the debt-ceiling fight weâ€™ll see a Tea Party-backed third-party candidate for President, and the RNC will â€œimplodeâ€ for lack of contributions. I think thatâ€™s right, but I donâ€™t think that will happen. …
[T]he Democrats arenâ€™t holding very many cards, and thereâ€™s no reason for the GOP to fold under the threat. Which isnâ€™t to say that they wonâ€™t fold anyway, of course. As Teddy Roosevelt once said about Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., I could carve a better backbone out of a banana. . . .