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Mitch McConnell’s Understandable Pessimism

So with the exception of Jennifer Rubin and the editors of the Wall Street Journal, the emerging consensus on the Right is that Sen. Mitch McConnell’s proposal to decouple raising the debt ceiling from spending cuts or tax hikes is a bad idea. Indeed, after sputtering with rage about it in the early going, some on the Left are positively gleeful. McConnell’s concession to reality—the GOP is not going to get the tax cuts it wants or the spending cuts it wants—is an acknowledgement that the GOP “anti-tax hegemony” is dead. See this masterpiece of illogic on Talking Points Memo for this argument, which is like saying that an acknowledgement of a painful political reality at the present moment is equivalent to announcing you have changed your mind about a point of deep principle. The GOP will remain the tax-cut party.

There seems to be a sense on the Right that McConnell’s concession to reality was far too broad, far too soon, and far too permissive—that Obama and the Democrats must be made to account for the increase in the debt limit with significant spending cuts that will at least mitigate in some way the damage they did by piling on new debt in 2009 and 2010, and that McConnell is letting them off the hook. Fair enough; maybe he was. But the question he was attempting to answer is which will be more damaging to the GOP and conservatives generally: Raising the debt limit without making Obama pay or failing to raise the debt limit? McConnell is betting that failing to raise the debt limit, or even contributing to the general uncertainty about whether the debt limit will be raised, is worse for him and his party.

It is, of course, a guessing game, trying to figure out who would be blamed for bad stuff. But peddling the “narrative” in which the GOP gets blamed for irresponsible and unreasonable negotiating tactics has a long history of working for Democrats. McConnell’s sense that seeming to be recalcitrant about raising the debt ceiling is more perilous than the alternative is sound pessimistic politics, which takes into account that very danger. He could be wrong. I could be wrong. But even Bill Kristol’s creative three-option plan doesn’t get to the question of the PR damage. That Obama might come to seem like a sane person in a sea of crazies may be galling to all of us who know he bears a great deal of responsibility for the severity of the current debt-ceiling crisis, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen exactly that way.


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