Playground Politics

Yeah, parents try to teach their kids to be somewhat gracious, or if not that, at least to keep their natural petulance to themselves. The idea is that, if you lose at something, you should appear to be a good loser – you should appear to accept defeat, when someone just did whatever it was better than you, as just how life sometimes works out. Yep, someone else won, but you don’t whine. You don’t say this was just so unfair. You don’t scream that the other kid cheated. You congratulate the winner – that was a nice job, well done. They call it sportsmanship.

But that’s a bitter business for kids. That’s not how they feel. And it is like being asked to lie. But appearances matter and most kids learn the importance of being able to fake the requisite socially acceptable graciousness somewhat convincingly. It’s just that along the way they try for that odd middle ground, where you save face by saying, well, you didn’t care anyway. Whatever the playground game – dodge ball or flag football or king-of-the-hill – the kid who just got his clock cleaned will often say, after he gave it his all, heart and soul, and came up embarrassingly short, that the game didn’t really matter to him. Hey, you thought I took that game seriously? Only creeps and weirdoes, and little kids, think that stuff matters. Okay, you wanted to win, and you won, but that just shows what a weirdo you are – cool kids are way beyond that.

And you can say that with a sneer, or with a patronizing world-weary shrug. You see it on playgrounds all the time. And now you see it in politics:

From the White House and Congress to financial centers, pessimism spread on Tuesday about the prospects of a debt-limit deal between President Obama and Republicans, prompting the Senate Republican leader to propose a “last-choice option” that piqued the administration’s interest but angered conservatives in his own party.

The leader, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said a bipartisan budget-cutting deal is probably out of reach, making it unlikely that Republicans would approve an increase in the government’s debt limit by Aug. 2. To prevent default, he proposed that Congress in effect empower Mr. Obama to raise the government’s borrowing limit without its prior approval of offsetting cuts in spending.

Mitch McConnell basically said it seems to be Obama who’s all bent out of shape about the debit-limit stuff, and the possibility of the United States defaulting on its sworn obligations, and the worldwide economic collapse that would follow. Hey, you think we really ever cared about that? Go ahead – raise the debt limit when it’s necessary to pay the bills. We’ll authorize you to do that. We have more important things to worry about, you weirdo. The debit-limit stuff is your problem, not ours. You actually thought we cared?

This was curious, and administration officials welcomed this McConnell initiative – at least both parties’ leaders were committed to averting a catastrophe, the first-ever government default. That’s cool. And of course Democrats in general saw this as a way to avoid the deep cuts in Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security that Republicans said was the price of their votes for a debt-limit increase. Those programs could live to see another day. And all the Republicans were starting to say the Debt-limit is Obama’s problem, not theirs.

But not all of them – many on the right were livid. McConnell’s proposal was a sell-out, and they had already had enough of the stories of House Speaker John Boehner privately discussing with Obama a debt-reduction deal that could raise revenues as well as cut spending. They had forced Boehner to retreat on that. He ate his humble pie. He wanted to keep his job. He said all that stuff was just talk, and he would never even think of anything that raised government revenues.

And now this, and Boehner suggested he could be open to the McConnell proposal. Damn. But the Republican leadership was clearly worried about how the showdown with Obama would end. There was the worry about the blame they could suffer if a debt-limit crisis – a real default – destroyed the economy. And leading their rank and file into a compromise was clearly going to be impossible. Boehner went on Fox News – “I think everybody believes there needs to be a backup plan if we are unable to come to an agreement, and frankly I think Mitch has done good work.”

And he knows the lay of the land, so his secret bargain, or any bargain, was as dead as dead could be – “I don’t think such a proposal could pass the House in any way, shape or form. You have a number of members who will never vote to raise the debt ceiling and a large block of members who believe this really is the moment to put our fiscal house in order.”

So now it’s screw it – the debt ceiling is a minor matter. No big deal. Obama had been calling for more deficit reduction than Republicans had ever called for, and he had been urging both parties to put ideology aside in favor of compromise. Boehner could possibly argue for putting ideology aside in favor of compromise. His party is now all ideology, all the time.

So it comes down to this:

While Mr. McConnell’s plan would face an array of political and perhaps constitutional issues, it signaled that Republican leaders did not intend to let conservative demands for deep spending cuts provoke a possible financial crisis and saddle the party with a reputation for irresponsible intransigence. And with prospects for a broad budget deal having dimmed, Mr. McConnell’s plan would shift both substantive and political responsibility onto Mr. Obama, forcing him to take almost sole ownership of a debt-limit increase and any consequences from not doing more to address the budget deficit.

Let Obama decide on debt-limit increases and cuts – and we’ll just attack him, whatever he does. That’s the idea. There’s no cost to them at all. They make no decisions. Obama does. Obama must now make them all. And he’ll pay dearly for those decisions. What’s not to like?

Yeah, well, Brent Bozell told all his followers online to call McConnell’s office and tell him he had “betrayed the trust of the American people.” And Newt Gingrich used Twitter – “McConnell’s plan is an irresponsible surrender to big government, big deficits and continued overspending.” Gingrich shut down the government twice in the mid-nineties, when he was speaker, and that was a disaster for his party and assured Bill Clinton a second term. But what the hell – why not do something even more spectacular, and destroy the world’s economy? The third time is charm?

Well, this chaos should make the White House happy, but it doesn’t:

The conservatives’ reaction against Mr. McConnell, coming after their earlier attack on Mr. Boehner, raised the prospect that the White House has long feared – that Republican leaders cannot lead a rank-and-file membership that is defiantly opposed to compromise with Mr. Obama. Among administration officials that fear offset their relief that the McConnell proposal suggested at least a fallback in the event that the talks break down.

How do you negotiate when the guys on the other side side won’t even listen to each other? Still, negotiations will continue. It’s just that now there’s a fail-safe to fall back on. And McConnell is now saying this – “After years of discussions and months of negotiations, I have little question that as long as this president is in the Oval Office, a real solution is probably unattainable.” And later McConnell said this – “We’re unable to come together. We think it’s extremely important that the country reassure the markets that default is not an option, and reassure Social Security recipients and families of military veterans that default is not an option.”

Someone won here. It wasn’t him. And the details are clear:

McConnell’s proposal would give Mr. Obama sweeping power to increase the government’s borrowing authority, in three increments, by up to $2.4 trillion – enough, it is estimated, to cover federal obligations through next year – only if Mr. Obama specifies spending cuts of equal amounts. Congress would vote on whether or not to approve Mr. Obama’s debt-limit increases, but the president could veto any disapproval and presumably sustain his veto in the House and Senate. And Congress would not have to approve the proposed spending cuts prior to the debt-limit increase.

Congress would not have to approve the proposed spending cuts prior to the debt-limit increase. The proposed spending cuts are just kind of ideas, not real. Still, when representatives of major business groups, including the US Chamber of Commerce and the Financial Services Forum issued statements saying stop messing around and raise the debt limit, Mayor Bloomberg of New York opened an event on Tuesday morning saying, “If America, for the first time in its history, defaults on its obligations, it would have a catastrophic effect on our financial system and on our credibility around the world” – well, you’ve lost.

Republicans were paralyzed by their own internal warfare and were left with two choices – compromise, which would both anger their base and help reelect Obama, or hold their ground and watch their political fortunes go down the drain. Maybe it was best to say this particular game was just not a big deal. Kids do say that when they lose.

And there was the pressure:

President Barack Obama told CBS Evening News host Scott Pelley Tuesday that he couldn’t guarantee Social Security checks would go out on Aug. 3 if the debt ceiling was not raised.

“Can you tell the folks at home that no matter what happens, Social Security checks are going to go out on Aug. 3?” Pelley asked.

“This is not just Social Security checks,” Obama replied. “These are veterans’ checks, these are folks on disability, their checks. There are about 70 million checks that go out.”

“Can you guarantee, as president, those checks will go out Aug. 3?” Pelley pressed.

“I cannot guarantee those checks go out on Aug. 3 if we haven’t resolved this issue. Because there simply may not be the money in the coffers to do it,” Obama explained.

What could you fire back at that? Let the old folks and the disabled and the vets starve? The Republicans got boxed in here. They boxed themselves in.

Kevin Drum comments:

When John Boehner said earlier today that the debt ceiling was 100% Obama’s problem, I took it as political hyperbole. But apparently it was much more than that. A couple of hours ago Boehner’s Senate doppelganger Mitch McConnell proposed a truly bizarre plan that would, literally, make the debt ceiling 100% Obama’s problem.

And the plan is this:

Next month Obama would receive approval to raise the debt ceiling $700 billion.

A “resolution of disapproval” would then be taken up by Congress on an expedited basis (i.e., no filibusters allowed).

If the resolution passes, Obama can veto it.

If he vetoes it, it requires a two-thirds vote of both houses to override.

If there’s no override, the debt limit is increased, but Obama would be required to lay out a “hypothetical” set of budget cuts totaling $700 billion.

This would be repeated (in $900 billion increments) in the fall of 2011 and summer of 2012.

Drum is appalled:

This is possibly the most juvenile, most buck passing, most transparently mendacious proposal I can recall from any party leader in recent memory. The bright idea here is to force Democrats to repeatedly vote to raise the debt ceiling during campaign season, and to repeatedly force Obama to lay out enormous budget cuts that have no purpose except to piss off interest groups. The whole thing is so patently, ridiculously political that it’s breathtaking. It ought to be named the “Gratuitous Embarrassment of Barack Obama and the Democratic Party Act of 2011.”

Does McConnell really think that he’s being clever here? That his purpose isn’t plain to everyone? The Republican Party has now passed from Alice in Wonderland to Lord of the Flies. It’s like dealing with a bunch of kids on a playground. Are McConnell and Boehner trying to prove Obama’s point that he’s the only adult at the table right now?

Yes. Is there any alternative answer? And later, Drum adds this:

I suppose there’s a bigger picture here than just McConnell’s cynicism. And the bigger picture, obviously, is that McConnell wouldn’t have proposed giving Obama his debt ceiling increase with only political strings attached unless he was convinced that Republicans were losing the PR battle for a more comprehensive deal. And since the only real stumbling block to a comprehensive deal was Obama’s insistence on revenue increases, McConnell must have felt that they were losing the PR battle even there. After years of owning the tax issue, this must have come as something of a tectonic shock.

And Drum finds that interesting:

Obviously, Obama has been positioning himself all along as the reasonable, centrist guy, willing to agree to trillions in spending cuts as long as Republicans are willing to close a few modest tax loopholes. Last week Republicans derided Obama’s repeated focus on tax breaks for corporate jets as class warfare etc., but you know what? It must have been working. Somewhere down in the bowels of the GOP’s polling operation, they must have discovered that the public was buying Obama’s pitch that “the wealthy need to pitch in too.”

But why were they surprised?

Raising taxes on the rich has always polled well, and Republicans may have recently figured out that this support was more than just theoretical. Eventually Obama would have made his detailed proposals public, and apparently McConnell had started to realize that shutting down the government over tax breaks for hedge fund billionaires and shorter depreciation schedules for corporate jet owners was really, really, not going to go down well, even among Republicans. So he pushed the eject button and tried to bail out.

But Drum offers a reality-check:

The political cynicism of his proposal is almost certainly too much for some Democrats, and giving up on spending cuts will be too much for most Republicans. Still, it provides a hint about who has the upper hand in the debt ceiling negotiations right now. And it ain’t McConnell.

And Steve Benen does the same:

A couple of things seem clear at this point. The first is that McConnell realized the talks were going nowhere – Democrats would continue to ask Republicans to compromise and the GOP would continue to refuse. That doesn’t only lead to a catastrophic outcome – it also makes Republicans look ridiculous. He needed a safety valve to get out of this – one that wouldn’t need new revenue – and this new plan fits the bill.

The second is that McConnell cares far more about politics and process than policy outcomes. His new scheme is cowardly and kind of pathetic to the extent that it shifts power away from Congress, but it will force a whole lot of votes on the debt, which the Minority Leader hopes will make Democrats feel uncomfortable. If a proposal leads to votes that can be used in attack ads, Mitch McConnell is necessarily pleased. If the proposal allows Republicans to vote against debt ceiling extensions without crashing the economy, he’s even more pleased.

It’s just nasty, without being effective, as Greg Sargent explains:

As McConnell said today, you would need two-thirds of both Houses of Congress to block Obama’s requests for the debt ceiling hikes. If the House and Senate did pass resolutions of disapproval, Obama would presumably veto them – requiring two thirds of both Houses to override the vetoes. …

At bottom, McConnell’s proposal is the latest GOP line on the debt ceiling – it is Obama’s problem, not ours – taken to its logical and legislative conclusion.

And the Hill reported that the administration would be required to “suggest spending cuts” to accompany three separate requests to raise the debt ceiling “but would not require such cuts.” Obama could not, under this proposal, recommend new revenue. But Benen argues that if that’s right, then “McConnell seems to be blinking awfully hard.”

In other words, in this little scenario, President Obama would have to offer proposals for spending cuts, with no corresponding measures to raise revenue. But it also appears that these proposed cuts from the White House need not even be serious – Obama could present plans he doesn’t take especially seriously, with the full expectation that Congress could and probably would reject them.

It would make the process needlessly ugly and stupid, but McConnell’s plan would seem to allow for a debt-ceiling increase with no guarantee of any spending cuts at all. Republicans would get a bunch of chances to grandstand, and rant and rave about Democrats, while putting all of the onus on the White House. But that’s not much. Republicans were going to grandstand, rant, rave, and point fingers anyway.

And that brings us back to the kids on the playground. What do you do when you lose? You say you’re not really playing the game, and you never really were anyway, as the cool kids don’t play that game anymore. What made you think I care about your stupid game?

And this is supposed to save face. At least that’s how fifth-graders think. And draw your own conclusions from that.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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