For all his protestations about protecting the full faith and credit of the United States — jittery markets are showing that his brinkmanship could have precisely the opposite effect — the president’s real intent is to score a humiliating victory over the GOP.
So far, so good. Republicans have fallen to 28 percent approval, the lowest level ever for either party in 21 years of polling and a staggering 10-point drop in the last month. Democrats have also declined, but only four points and, in the end, partisan politics is a zero-sum game. If you lose less than the other guy, you win — because every seat in Congress will be allocated to one party or the other, no matter how disgusted the country is with both.
To be sure, the administration has, as always, overplayed a good hand, with punitive shutdowns — such as of the World War II Memorial — clearly intended to be blamed on the GOP.
People aren’t that stupid. They know a gratuitous abuse of government (lockout) power when they see it. Moreover, Republicans have been passing partial funding bills for such things as national monuments and cancer research, forcing Harry Reid’s Democratic Senate to kill them with a stone cold heart.
Even worse for Democrats, their current partisan advantage is a wasting asset. The rule is simple: shutdown good, debt ceiling bad. Every day the debt ceiling approaches, President Obama’s leverage diminishes.
Obama insists he won’t negotiate on the debt ceiling as a matter of principle. It’s never been used as leverage for extraneous (i.e., non-budgetary) demands, he claims.
Nonsense. It’s been so used dozens of times going back at least to 1973 when Ted Kennedy and Walter Mondale tried to force campaign finance reform on President Nixon. Obama himself voted against raising the debt ceiling when he was a senator in 2006.
So much for principle. Moreover, should Obama miscalculate the brinkmanship, he’ll become the first president to ever allow a default. Precisely opposite to the principle he pretends to be espousing — and ruinous to what’s left of his presidency. Breaching the debt ceiling would indeed, as he claims, be an economic disaster, aborting an already historically anemic recovery. As president, he would take the blame. He can’t allow it.
It’s a bluff. He will blink.
That’s why, as the debt ceiling approaches, the initiative will increasingly swing to House Speaker John Boehner. The real question is: What will Boehner do with it?
His answer thus far has been peculiar: He simply wants the president to sit down and negotiate.
Negotiate what? “There’s nothing on the table,” said Boehner on Tuesday. “There’s nothing off the table.”
Stranger still. You cannot negotiate if you don’t know what you want. The Republicans need to present a simple, broadly popular set of demands to attach to the debt ceiling. The president will deal. In his Tuesday press conference, he’d already abandoned his original ultimatum of give me a long-term extension or I don’t budge. Now it’s: Give me an extension of any length and I’ll come to the table.
On Thursday, Boehner took that exit ramp, offering Obama a six-week debt-ceiling extension during which negotiations would be conducted. Unless Obama reverses himself and refuses, his “no negotiations” posture evaporates.
What, then, to ask for? Paul Ryan, as usual, points the way with a suggestion that would turn the partial and imperfect success of the last debt-ceiling fight — the automatic spending cuts (“sequester”) that seriously reduced discretionary spending — into the larger success of curbing entitlements, which is where the real money is.
After all, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other health programs (plus interest payments) already claim more than half the federal budget. And they are poised to explode, eating up (estimates the Congressional Budget Office) 97 percent of revenues within 25 years.
Raising (and indexing) the retirement age while changing the inflation measure for entitlements would alone be major achievements. Democrats could be offered relief on the sequester — which everyone agrees needs restructuring anyway, since it cuts agency budgets indiscriminately, often illogically, by formula.
It’s win-win. A serious attack on the deficit — good. Refiguring sequestration to restore some defense spending and some logic to discretionary spending — also good. Forcing the president off Mount Olympus — priceless.
Charles Krauthammer is a syndicated columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group.