Political Animal


January 09, 2013 3:46 PM Strategic Retreat On Debt Limit?

By Ed Kilgore

Jonathan Chait draws attention to a piece by AEI’s James Capretta at National Review that he thinks might signal where Republicans are about to go on the debt-limit negotiations.

It’s fascinating, all right. Capretta explicitly argues for letting the hostage go on grounds that (a) the GOP doesn’t want to get blamed for triggering or even risking a debt default,(b) Obama won’t agree to any acceptable “entitlement reforms,” (c) Republicans need to put the tax increase genie right back in the bottle, and (d) the just-don’t-deal posture positions Republicans to run against Obama’s mismanagement of fiscal affairs in 2014.

Like John Boehner, Capretta speaks of Republicans in Congress supporting month-to-month increases in the debt limit. But while Boehner seemed to be talking about using this tactic to ratchet up pressure for a big spending-cut agreement, Capretta is explicitly arguing against any agreement, and seems to think the short-term debt limit extensions are a way for GOPers to signal their grudging willingness to discharge the country’s obligations without conceding they are legitimate.

So is Chait right and Capretta is signaling a strategic retreat by Republicans on the big debt-limit fight they seemed to be spoiling for so recently? Hard to say. Chait is convinced that Republicans (with Paul Ryan influencing them behind the scenes) have decided that any old “entitlement reform” isn’t worth giving in to Obama on taxes. No, the big goal is privatization of health care, Ryan’s little red wagon, and it’s best to hold out for that, presumably after the midterms or even after 2016:

What is the point of cutting retirement benefits, if their One True Solution to long-term deficits is not tried? Why agree to a plan that would appear to reduce the deficit, and may even do so for a while, and thus take away the party’s ability to campaign against runaway deficits in 2016, and elect, say, Paul Ryan, and implement its plan?

I dunno. It’s not clear to me that Ryan or much of anyone else is more concerned with instituting premium support for Medicare than more generally disabling the New Deal/Great Society programs. Ryan’s own budget was a lot less focused on Medicare than on decimating low-income programs, and not just Medicaid. And besides, conservatives have a strong tendency to identify “reforms” of entitlements with steps taken to make beneficiaries bear more of the cost of retirement and health care, regardless of whether it’s the federal government, the states or the private sector that’s managing the programs.

Indeed, in talking of Medicare “reforms” Republicans should push for until a premium support system can be enacted, Capretta links to an article pushing for more cost-sharing with beneficiaries (code for benefit cuts) as crucial.

So it don’t know if the strategy laid out by Capretta represents the kind of shift in goals Chait is talking about, or simply an elaborate rationalization for avoiding a fight Republicans can’t win. It will be interesting to see if Capretta is echoed, damned or ignored by his fellow-conservatives.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • mrgavel on January 09, 2013 3:55 PM:

    Well, in order for this to work they have to stop the grassroots of the GOP from freaking out when the "black guy" is seen as winning another round and the Congressional Republicans are seen as losing. Also, the way to totally get around this argument is to make passing a balanced budget seem to be a moral imperative and then balance it from the left.

  • Peter C on January 09, 2013 3:56 PM:

    I think they fear the platinum coin. I think their lawyers have told them it is a legal option and they know that, if the positions were reversed, they'd already have minted a couple of thousand of them and given half away to key campaign contributors.

  • skeptonomist on January 09, 2013 4:10 PM:

    Republicans' preferences are mostly crystal clear by this time. They want tax cuts, or failing that no increases, or failing that minimal increases. There is no sign that they will trade anything for this. Then they want cuts in Medicaid and other programs that go preferentially to poor people and non-Republicans. How much Obamacare falls in this category is still somewhat uncertain. Their big-money backers would like cuts in SS and Medicare, but this would cost them votes from even Republicans, so this would only happen if they can saddle Democrats with the cuts.

  • Ron Byers on January 09, 2013 4:23 PM:

    The other day both Boehner and McConnell signaled a shift in the debt ceiling battle when they pointed out that the debt ceiling was only one of the pressure points. I think Capretta is laying the ground work for a shift to the end of the continuing resolution and sequestration. Both of those opportunities offer far more for Republicans than the debt ceiling which for them is all downside and no upside.

  • Josef K on January 09, 2013 4:25 PM:

    So is Chait right and Capretta is signaling a strategic retreat by Republicans on the big debt-limit fight they seemed to be spoiling for so recently? Hard to say.

    Who the hell knows what Boehner (or Capretta, or any Conservative voice come to it) is actually thinking these days. That's presuming they're thinking at all.

  • Josef K on January 09, 2013 4:29 PM:

    There's also the rank-and-file of the Republican conference to consider. I'm really not convinced enough of them understand or fear the consequences of even a one-day default. Its a rather frightening concept, truth be told.

  • T2 on January 09, 2013 5:01 PM:

    remember that this Debt Ceiling crap is brand new. Until the last time, Congress has always just upped the Ceiling when needed as an understood piece of government business. From the standpoint of governance, it's just a procedural act.....up it and move on. Unfortunately Obama let the TeaParty Genie out of the bottle the last time we hit the Ceiling, and now it's up to him to put it back in the bottle and not allow this comedy act to be repeated each month for the remainder of his presidency. His statement that he will not "negotiate it" is exactly what he has to do. I will argue that probably a minimum of 50% of the population don't even understand what it is...hell, 50% of the GOP House don't appear to understand it. Mr. President, go on TV and tell the people what is going on here.

  • CharlieM on January 09, 2013 5:14 PM:

    Republican retreat on the debt ceiling? Not gonna happen.
    All of those gerrymandered house seats are full of ignorant TeaTards promising to primary anyone appearing to give in to the Kenyan Muslim Socialist.
    And they've scored just enough wins in recent primaries to put fear into those Repub house reps. These guys fear getting primaried and losing to the crazies even more than they fear getting blamed for shutting down the government and the consequent economic fallout.

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