House Republicans are at a retreat in Williamsburg, Virginia (not the hipster Williamsburg) trying to figure out what to do about their political predicament in general and the debt ceiling in particular. Former Republican budget aide Keith Hennessey has an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal suggesting a kind of partial retreat from the party’s full-on hostage strategy of 2011. Republicans, he recognizes, can’t really threaten to block the debt ceiling. Instead, he suggests they threaten to block a long-term increase in the debt ceiling unless Obama gives in on spending. If Obama refuses, Hennessey suggests they just cough up a series of three-month debt ceiling hikes. Republicans are reportedly weighing this approach.
Will it work? You have to ask yourself what the point is. If Republicans can’t threaten to shoot the hostage, what do they gain by holding new debt ceiling votes every few months? It’s either leverage or it isn’t. If it isn’t, then a new vote every few months won’t do anything for the GOP. Indeed, it will annoy Republicans, who will be forced to take more and more “he voted to increase the debt ceiling fourteen times!” votes.
Hennessey’s analysis is less an argument than the expression of a party attempting to cope with loss. They thought they had a glorious opportunity to extract a ransom payment from Obama in return for not blowing up the world economy, and Hennessey’s plan is a kind of halfway point on the road to conceding that the debt ceiling will probably return to the old system of a mere posturing opportunity.
But the biggest pathology is that, like virtually every conservative analysis of the budget standoff, it utterly refuses to acknowledge the actual choices at hand. In Hennessey’s telling, the problem is simply that Obama opposes spending cuts and so Republicans must force him:
If the president continues to dodge the country’s long-term spending problem, the solution is to force him to ask Congress every few months to give him the authority to borrow more while facing questions about why he refuses to restrain spending.
But that is false. Obama is very willing to accept spending cuts if they come alongside revenue increases through reducing tax deductions.
Republicans need to figure out how to navigate these options. They could try to cut a deal and get the spending cuts in return for revenue. Or they could continue their general approach of trying to get as many spending cuts as possible without accepting any revenue at all — which wouldn’t make it impossible for them to wrangle some more cuts out of Obama, but certainly lowers the ceiling on what they can get. And, hey, maybe there’s an argument from a right-wing perspective that the cuts to retirement programs Obama will give them aren’t worth higher revenue.
The odd thing is that they refuse to acknowledge the choice. They’re not arguing that low taxes take precedent over lower spending. They just keep falsely insisting over and over that Obama refuses to accept spending cuts. If they think it makes sense to refuse the spending cuts Obama is offering because they can’t accept the revenue increases he insists have to go along with it, why don’t they just say that? Is the position so unpopular they can’t even acknowledge it publicly? Are they just unable to conceive of a policy change that comes about as a result of compromise rather than hostage-taking? It’s genuinely weird.