Playing the Man: Defeating Obama With the Debt Ceiling
If President Obama's decidedly un-presidential explosion at House Majority Leader Eric Cantor during a White House meeting on Wednesday suggests anything, it's that the stress is getting to the man. Everything that we've ever seen suggests that the president is fairly thin-skinned. As someone who had virtually everything in his life handed to him -- and who made it nearly to the age of fifty living in isolated realms (Hawaii prep schools, Ivy League universities, Chicago Democratic politics) where he'd never have to even speak to, let alone deal seriously with, a genuine conservative -- he's not someone used to dealing with those who disagree with his premises. This gives the GOP an opening.
Politically, the Democrats still hold more power. Control of the White House and the Senate ensures that Republicans will not be able to get the sort of genuine reforms -- serious changes to entitlements, pro-growth tax reform, broad spending cuts, government reorganization -- that will genuinely end the debt crisis. Even assuming that the president is reelected in 2012, the contours of the 2012 political battlefield make it at least a 50/50 proposition that the Republicans will control the Senate as well come January 3, 2013. Therefore, there is little political incentive for Republicans to strike a "Grand Bargain" at the present time -- especially in light of the fact that one can be certain that, whatever its details, the media will credit such a deal to Obama and use it to kick-start the sort of "shift-to-the-center" narrative that he'll need in order to win another term. With these considerations in mind, the correct Republican strategy for the debt ceiling is to play the man, not the ball.
The present debate is plainly one that Obama would rather not be having. Not only does endless talk about how to reduce spending run counter to his belief in an ever-expanding government, but it's pretty clear at this point that this president is not really all that interested or suited for the day-to-day business of governing. His remarkably light schedule, frequent breaks, and general demeanor suggests that the man is someone whose personal energy level is not consistent with that of an active Commander-in-Chief. He's energized by the crowds and the adulation of the campaign trail -- not the adult business of managing a republic. This presents Republicans with a tremendous opportunity: if the president will not agree to the sorts of fundamental reforms that are required to truly end the crisis, then the correct course of action is to wage a war of attrition against the president on a personal level, one designed to besiege him in the White House and then to break him on a psychological level.
Forcing a series of debt limit debates will increase the likelihood of a presidential gaffe, limit the ability of the president to propose policy in other areas, and -- as I'll get to in a moment -- likely kick off by forcing a humiliating presidential climb-down from a nonsensical promise to veto any short-term increase in the limit.
On a strategic level, the goal of all sieges is to fix an opponent in place and to then compel his surrender through a sustained campaign. The Republican House can do exactly this on the debt limit by calling the president's self-admitted bluff and passing a series of short-term increases in the debt limit along with bite-sized cuts in government spending. There's absolutely no reason why the House should accept the president's desire for a debt limit increase that will run through the end of 2012. The fact that the president is disinterested in having to campaign and govern at the same time is irrelevant to the American people.
The numbers that we're speaking about are so large that they're beyond the capability of most citizens to fully grasp. If the Congress passes, say, a $500-billion increase in the limit -- along with $600 billion or so in spending cuts -- does it really seem probable that the president will veto it and then either default on payments on the debt or fail to make Social Security payments? Even with the aid of all of the persuasive powers of the media, it is nearly impossible to conceive of how the blame for whatever would happen in the aftermath of such a veto would not fall squarely upon the president.
Indeed, the House Republicans would do well to remember two vital episodes in recent history: the 2008 TARP vote and the final vote on ObamaCare. The bill that became the latter was not the first choice of many Democrats -- it was forced to become so after the election of Scott Brown to the Senate foreclosed the possibility of a second bill making its way through that body. It became the bill by default. In the case of TARP, market panic resulted in a bill being forced through the Congress in near-record time with the votes of frightened members who had just rejected more or less the same proposal. A House proposal that's ready to go could, if already passed and either on the president's desk (assuming cooperation can be forced from the Senate) or in the Senate hopper could become a final bill by default.
Drawing by Otto Veblin