What would a “win” look like for each of the parties in the debt ceiling debate?
For the president, a “win” in this crisis would be getting it behind him, period, at this point; particularly a deal that puts off the next debt limit increase until after the 2012 election. Other elements of a “good” deal for President Obama: a deal that gives the ratings agencies confidence, by being sufficiently bipartisan (70 or more Senators voting for it) that it reassures them that this country has not become ungovernable; that includes sufficient deficit reduction over ten years to give international bond markets confidence, and that contains a mix of spending reductions — but definitely not spending reductions in the present year, which would kill the economy — and that includes revenues, whether that means closing loopholes or junking the disastrous Bush tax cuts.
Harry Reid is in the relatively enviable position of having just been re-elected, so he’s safe in his seat for a minute. But his leadership is being challenged by Mitch McConnell, who has tried to go around Reid and open a channel directly to the White House (though you’ve got to wonder why anyone in the White House including Vice President Biden, would trust a guy who has said his prime directive is to prevent the president’s re-election.)
Reid needs to seize back the initiative, and have his definitive stamp on the final legislation. That means preserving the good things about his bill: keeping entitlements, especially Social Security, out of it; preserving the Democrats’ Paul Ryan-induced electoral advantage on Medicare (trimming the growth of Medicare is not the same as cutting it, and usually, Medicare cuts hit the providers in some fashion, not the recipients, so there’s room for negotiation there without giving away so much that Dems lose the “vouchercare” bump next year), getting real defense spending cuts and at least keeping the principle of savings by getting out of Afghanistan and Iraq on the table, and cutting corporate subsidies. That’s the “shared pain” Sen. John Kerry is talking about and that the final negotiations are apparently hinging on. If Reid does that, and especially if he holds the line on not renewing the Bush tax cuts in 2012, he’ll look like a hero, even to grumbling liberal Democrats who apparently do not trust the president.
The ultimate snake in the grass in these negotiations, the Senate minority leader has two real goals here: 1) making President Obama own seriously unpopular budget cuts so that Republicans can turn around and run against him on the basis of those cuts next year, and 2) becoming Senate majority leader. To that end, McConnell needs a final deal to have his stamp on it, by preserving as many tax loopholes Republican members like, and as many reductions to popular, Democratic-approved programs (including Medicae, Medicaid and if he can get it, Social Security) as possible. McConnell wants to be able to tell fellow Republicans that the president signed off on entitlement cuts too, so the public should pay no attention to vouchercare, and he wants tea party people to vote him in as majority leader if — and this is a scary thought — Republicans manage to win the Senate in 2012.
At this point, a win for Boehner might just be a long, booze filled vacation. Boehner is limping through this crisis with less power and authority every time the House takes a vote. He barely cobbled together the 217 votes (besides his own) to pass his own bill, the tea party freshmen don’t respect him, Eric Cantor is constantly stabbing him in the back and plotting against him (and probably Kevin McCarthy is too) and he has yet to engage the one person who can help him win, by not pissing off Wall Street with a debt ceiling failure: Nancy Pelosi.
At this point, Boehner needs a win – it doesn’t even have to be a big one. He needs to get enough tea sweeteners into the final bill to get it through the House with significant Republican support, but that also has at least some bipartisan flavor. Conversely, a bill that passes with almost all Democrats will make him look even more ineffectual and dependent on the minority. If Boehner could simply ignore the freshmen and get Pelosi to deliver him 87 Democratic votes, that wouldn’t be a bad outcome for the speaker. But with his own election, and that of a lot of really unstable seeming fellow GOPers coming up, Boehner also needs the bill to somehow blunt the Paul Ryan/vouchercare mess by cutting into entitlements, so members can run for re-election pointing the finger at the White House and saying “they cut Medicare too!” That’s why Republicans, including Boehner, have been apoplectic that the White House won’t lay out a written plan. How can they attack President Obama’s plan if he won’t write the bloody thing down!!!? And Boehner would love to have a bill that’s short-term, so Republicans could fire up the freak show again six months from now, in the midst of election season. He probably won’t get that, though.
I can’t remember who originated this, but someone on Twitter threw out the brilliant line last week that somewhere, Nancy Pelosi is watching all of this, smiling widely and stroking a bald, white cat. Pelosi on the one hand has been marginalized in the debate, since no one seems to be negotiating with her. On the other hand, she gets to sit back and watch John Boehner demonstrate day after day that he can’t do her job. As speaker, Nancy Pelosi ran circles around poor Boehner, and he knows it. Now, all she needs is for him to come to her, as he’s going to have to, and watch her deliver the votes. In the process, she can exact a price — protecting entitlements and critical programs like Pell grants, WIC and assistance to the poor. Then, she’ll be a hero to the liberals in her caucus, and to Democrats around the country.
The American People
Who’s that, you say? I know, the rest of us rarely get a mention in the wild horse race that is Washington politics, but the American people can win in this debate too, even if it doesn’t seem like it now. A good deal for Americans would tackle the long term debt but avoid short term cuts; would exempt Social Security, trim the explosive growth of Medicare by attacking the source of the problem: out of control prescription drug and treatment costs — without touching benefits; would calm the international bond markets and preserve America’s AAA rating; and would include that shared sacrifice we keep hearing about, by forcing the rich to participate in deficit reduction. Even getting rid of ALL the Bush tax cuts this time, including the middle class rates, would constitute shared sacrifice, but the problem is, those at the very bottom really can’t afford even an incremental increase. So something would have to be done to bolster the Earned Income Tax Credit or some other offset.
But the biggest win of all, would be to finally end the influence of the tea party movement, which has proven to be the most divisive, destructive force in modern American politics (including their divisiveness within the GOP, which has been paralyzed and turned into a three-ring circus with an impotent ring master/House leader by them). The teas may think they’re doing the right thing, but they clearly are a reckless bunch of talk radio-fed extremists who don’t know how to govern, don’t understand economics or history (even Ronald Reagan raised the darned debt ceiling), and they frankly have no business helping run the government. Winning means voting, folks, because not doing so is how we got the tea party House in the first place.