Political Animal


May 13, 2011 8:00 AM Mitch McConnell’s not-so-secret strategy

By Steve Benen

When it comes to raising the debt ceiling, House Republican leaders have been sticking to an aggressive hostage strategy: give them the (unspecified) cuts or the GOP will create a recession on purpose. Thus far, Senate Republicans haven’t played much of a role, though that started to change yesterday.

The Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, said Thursday that the debt ceiling debate provides Congress with a rare opportunity to make sweeping changes to entitlement programs and spending, and that he would not vote to raise the level without significant budget cuts and revisions to Medicare and Medicaid.

“Divided government is the best time — and some would argue the only time — where you can do really big stuff,” Mr. McConnell said at a news conference after a meeting between President Obama and Republican senators. He said he had thought the meeting would be a waste of time but was pleased that it was a “candid exchange.”

This is, of course, identical to the House leadership’s threat. McConnell will help cause an economic catastrophe, deliberately, unless Democrats give Republicans what the GOP demands.

The only difference is what McConnell was willing to concede yesterday about the underlying strategy. More so that House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), the Senate Minority Leader yesterday said he wanted to do “really big stuff” — most notably on entitlements — as part of a possible debt deal.

The interesting part was McConnell’s candor. He freely admitted that if leaders from both parties agreed to sweeping changes to entitlements, the political fallout would be minimal.

“When you do something together, the result is that it’s not usable in the election,” McConnell told reporters. “I think there’s an understanding that if there’s a grand bargain, none of it will be usable in next year’s election.”

As the kids say, “Duh.”

Look, this is so obvious, it usually goes unsaid, but it’s important to understand. McConnell and other Republicans are eager, practically desperate, to make major changes to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security — changes that the public won’t like. What the GOP needs more than anything is bipartisan cover. They want Obama to make it so, to use McConnell’s word, this isn’t “usable” in the next election, because if Republicans tried to do this on their own, the electoral consequences would be severe.

That leaves Republican leaders with two choices to get what they want. Option #1: the GOP can agree to some tax increases and Pentagon cuts as part of a grand bargain with Democrats. Option #2: the GOP can threaten to destroy the economy, on purpose, unless Democrats give in to Republican demands on entitlements.

Guess which one the GOP prefers?

Neither McConnell nor Boehner have been willing to speak publicly about exactly what’s on the GOP’s ransom note, but that’s part of the game, too — they’re keeping things vague so they can wait and see how far Democrats will go to fill in the blanks.

With that in mind, the White House is also effectively left with two options. Option #1: tell Republicans there will be no deal and when the economy crashes, it will be their fault. Option #2: tell the GOP negotiations can proceed after Republican leaders start adding details to their own ransom note.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.


Post a comment
  • just bill on May 13, 2011 8:05 AM:

    steve, i'll go with option #1. it's time to end this game.

  • c u n d gulag on May 13, 2011 8:15 AM:

    I say let them blow the economy up.

    If we allow 'Yurtle the Turtle' McConnell and Orangsickle Boner to have their way, those of us who are not rich are absulutely F*CKED!

    If I'm gonna get ABSOLUTELY F*CKED, I want to take the f*cing rich down with me.


    Maybe after the pieces are all picked up, and the dead buried, we'll have a better world.

  • yellowdog on May 13, 2011 8:27 AM:

    Anybody feel like a game of chicken? Problem is, after the crash, when the EMTs are trying to figure out what body part goes with what other body part scattered on the roadway, the Fox gang will be there to say Obama was driving too fast and got in McConnell's way. Or he was distracted by Common in the passenger seat. Or he was palling around with terrorists. In any case, don't expect the GOP to get the blame for blowing up the economy this time. They didn't last time. They don't have the 'wherewithal' to admit the consequences of their own actions.

  • beejeez on May 13, 2011 8:33 AM:

    The danger of collapsing the economy over the debt limit is zero. Wall Street wants the debt limit raised as much as the Dems do. Big businesses may dislike tax hikes, but they really dislike depressions, and a GOP without Wall Street is like a golf club without white men.

    Republican leadership, as usual, is just making enough noise to keep bilking the Tea Partiers until closing time. Dems should focus on staying on message, and loudly.

  • low-tech cyclist on May 13, 2011 8:43 AM:

    Off-topic, but at the top of this page right now there's a link to an article on the Washington Monthly site advocating flogging as a punishment for committing crimes.

    There isn't much that could make me reconsider the wisdom of my periodic contributions to the Monthly's bottom line, but this gets into that territory.

    It's an idea that's both immoral and stupid. If flogging were legalized, the wingnuts would soon make sure it was administered in addition to prison, rather than instead of it. All this article does is give 'even the liberal Washington Monthly' bipartisan cover to barbarism.

    The Washington Monthly should remove this article from its website.

    Let Peter Moskos publish it where he will, and the WM can replace the article with a link to wherever it winds up, along with a note saying that while readers are still welcome to follow the link and read the article, the Washington Monthly, after further reflection, feels this idea is beyond the pale, and completely disassociates itself from it.

  • paul on May 13, 2011 8:46 AM:

    And of course we know that the GOP is lying about things not being usable for attack ads just because both parties voted for them. They showed last time that they're perfectly willing to run attack ads claiming actions by democrats that simply never happened. So erasing their own role in social-program destruction (let's not buy into their frame of "entitlement reform") would be easy. And the whole village would support their story.

    I think at this point everybody pretty much expects republicans to vote in ways that damage our country, so they no longer suffer political fallout from it. Only democrats do.

  • martin on May 13, 2011 8:49 AM:

    Unless McConnell is willing to filibuster the debt ceiling, or there are enough Dems and Repubs to join him in a vote against raising it, this is nothing but publicity pandering.

    And if he is willing to filibuster, the he personally gets the blame for destroying the US and world economy.

    Pretty simple proposition for the Dems there.

  • ComradeAnon on May 13, 2011 8:50 AM:

    Why do I feel Like I'm betwen a rock and a hard place?

  • T-Rex on May 13, 2011 9:01 AM:

    Insanity, doing the same thing over and over and hoping for a different result. Wasn't this how George H.W. Bush went about raising taxes when he realized he had no choice but to break his "read my lips" pledge? He called the Democrats into a conference and asked them to suggest ways to solve the deficit. When they looked at him blankly and said "We haven't got the faintest idea what you mean," he begged them to suggest the obvious solution. Then he implored them. And finally he broke down and suggested it himself. Then, during his next Presidential campaign, he claimed that raising taxes wasn't his idea, Congress forced him. We all know how well that worked out. I wish McConnell all the bad luck in the world with this.

  • Danny on May 13, 2011 9:11 AM:

    So Obama and congressional dems do some negotiations but don't budge from what's acceptable to them. As the deadline approaches republicans start getting anxious to make a deal and starts lowering the bid. At that point Obama says: "here's my plan - take it or leave it".

  • FRP on May 13, 2011 9:17 AM:

    low-tech cyclist points to his object being off topic . Aside from Mr Benen my depth inside "The Washington Monthly" is met by the same Mr Benen's links . I selected the "Flogging" link and was as appalled by the flip flashing of justifications generally attributable to a High School level of ingenuity . Useless .
    It is because I enjoy the restraint and perception brought by the same that I am afraid I subscribe entirely with those sentiments voiced by low-tech cyclist . It may bring some number of look sees , however a few references to Slut Walks would probably bring the same number of clicks , and the object of them would be insulting the right people .

    A long painful death by Captcha , as a dreary fate this one offers some insulting reminders of the years that have fled since first I left home ...

  • max on May 13, 2011 9:59 AM:

    “When you do something together, the result is that it’s not usable in the election,” McConnell told reporters. “I think there’s an understanding that if there’s a grand bargain, none of it will be usable in next year’s election.”

    Duh, indeed. Don't negotiate with these people. Not extending the debt limit to pay existing obligations is a GOPer issue. They own it. This is like Gettysburg. When you are sitting on high ground and the idiots are willing to attack, let them come.

  • OKDem on May 13, 2011 10:05 AM:

    As Martin @8:49 points out McConnell has not used the F word.

    If there is no filibuster, it takes 50 Democrats and Joe Biden to pass a debt ceiling.

    Reid may first offer the ceiling increase with repeal of oil tax credits and ethanol subsides and let McConnell filibuster that. Reid then offers a clean bill.

    That throws Boehner under the bus. He has to bring up the bill or be solely responsible for disaster. So he puts the bill on the floor and 25 [24 after the Repubs lose the NY special election] Republicans and all the Democrats vote for a clean debtceiling increase.

    The WSJ today says Rethugs are questioning even August as a deadline. That suggests we are in for a rough summer as they try to wear down the economy. Problem for them is they are giving Obama the opening to reach the hero stature of FDR in the bank panic.

  • Bart on May 13, 2011 10:19 AM:

    Last night on the News Hour, Lehrer was over-matched by McConnell, bringing a water pistol to a knife fight. At least Lehrer could have made reference to the Downturn chart produced by the CBPP.

    It is indeed time to retire, although why it has to be a partial one at his age is silly.

  • jjm on May 13, 2011 10:51 AM:

    We could power our whole country on just the hot air emitted by Republicans.

  • dennisS on May 13, 2011 11:01 AM:

    I'm hoping Obama's private words to Boehner and McConnell are; "I'll give you a face-saving way out of this (something token), you better take it." And, then he holds fast. I'd rather Democrats let them take us to the abyss and see what happens then give them anything approaching what they've demanded. We'd all suffer from a GOP-sided deal, but the havoc they're threatening w/ the debt-ceiling game could destroy fortunes. I can't believe Wall Street will let them do it.

  • Mike on May 13, 2011 11:22 AM:

    There is an option 3: Democrats put a proposal on the table, tell Republicans to take it or leave it, and then take the fight to the public to make then understand that it is the Republicans who WANT another recession.

    Problem is, that would take guts and Congressional Democrats seem to be lacking those lately.

  • Stephen Stralka on May 13, 2011 11:24 AM:

    So as far as I can tell, the kinds of concessions they're demanding in exchange for raising the debt ceiling would be just as devastating as not raising the debt ceiling. Which doesn't give the Democrats much incentive to negotiate. If they're determined to destroy the economy one way or the other, the only thing the Dems can really do is refuse to take any part of the blame and then (hopefully) clean up in 2012.

  • Stephen Stralka on May 13, 2011 11:30 AM:

    When he talks about this stuff being usable in the election, McConnell also implicitly acknowledges that the things his party wants to do would be pretty unpopular. Which is interesting, because the Republicans keep telling us that "the people have spoken" in last year's elections and demanded an unadulterated Republican agenda.

  • TCinLA on May 13, 2011 11:43 AM:

    It took a crash 82 years ago to put these scum in their place for a generation. It may take another one for the American people to get their collective head out of their collective ass and re-learn what happens when you let Republicans decide anything beyond what to order as takeout for lunch. Let 'em do it, it will do serious, serious harm all their good buddies on Wall Street a lot more than it will harm most of us, and right now anything that fucks up Wall Street is a Good Thing.

  • Danny on May 13, 2011 12:06 PM:


    Well the problem with an "official" democratic proposal supported by Obama and congress is that it concedes that raising the debt limit is the right time for addressing the deficit, so they can't continue calling the republicans on their little hostage game. And if negotiations break down they would risk equal blame for defaulting, since they assumed equal ownership of reaching a deal.

    I think (hope) they're playing this right: make some non-committing gestures of compromise and let the clock run out. The closer we get to the deadline, the more the repubs will get shaky. Eventually they'll fold and cut a deal that is (hopefully) perfectly acceptable to dems and leaves the Ryan plan as a fat juicy target for 2012 (i.e. no compromise on medicare for now), but looks like a complete sellout to the repubs tea-party base given Boehner and McConnells stupidly high opening bids.

    But dems are walking a fine line here, since public opinion on the face of it supports Boehners shennanigans, for now:

    Republicans oppose raising the debt ceiling by 70% to 8% and independents by 46% to 15%. Democrats favor raising the ceiling by 33% to 26%. Overall 47-19 against raising it.

    So this is yet again not gonna be FireDogLake's dream scenario of ballsy ultra liberals waving their d-cks around and having our way with the world. But playing it smart we could have our way in the end, after some nail biting drama.

  • Danny on May 13, 2011 12:08 PM:

    Polling on debt ceiling above from Gallup, here: http://www.gallup.com/poll/147524/Americans-Oppose-Raising-Debt-Ceiling.aspx

  • Michelle on May 13, 2011 12:15 PM:

    If anyone believes that the Republicans won't use support from Dems for reducing Medicare, etc. against the Democrats in the upcoming elections (even with Republicans voting en masse to support the same cuts), then I have a bridge to sell.

  • Jimo on May 13, 2011 12:26 PM:

    Why is the Administration not pushing this issue immediately? What does it think will improve with time?

  • jsjiowa on May 13, 2011 12:45 PM:

    I agree with Mike -- I think there's another option. If Obama makes a proposal that appears more reasonable than the Republicans' no-new-taxes stance, I think he can win.

    Roll in the Dems proposal on ending oil subsidies and applying to the deficit, and similar cuts, but protect Medicare and Social Security. The Dems are going to need to make some cuts in spending to be credible with the independents.

    As for the popularity of raising the debt ceiling, the people who are against it really don't understand. Use simple, poll-tested phrasing to address the current Republican myths (that could even be run in ads paid for by Wall Street & the Chamber of Commerce, since they have a vested interest in the issue).

    And raise some taxes, especially on higher earners (those poll well). Use a kitchen-table economics approach if possible, to sell the plan (For example, you've got substantial debt, maybe from unexpected medical bills or major repairs. You want to make payments, but you've cuts all the extras from your budget. What do you do? Raise more money. Maybe you sell some possessions. Maybe you take a second or third job. Well, the government is selling off extra federal property to raise revenue. It can't take an extra job, but it can adjust taxes to bring in enough money to pay the bills. etc.)

    Republicans will start to look pretty foolish if the Dems make a reasonable proposal that both raises revenue and makes some spending cuts.

  • meander on May 13, 2011 1:04 PM:

    Another option #3, first suggested by Matt Yglesias at his Think Progress-affiliated blog was for Obama and the Executive Branch to specify exactly what will happen if the debt ceiling is not raised. For example, "If the debt ceiling is not raised, the government will first stop paying all military contractors based in Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky. Next, we will delay payments to federal offices in those states, followed by federal offices in the midwest and Great Plains. Next, we will stop paying social security checks." And so on, to put pressure on GOP districts and the interest groups that make the GOP run.

  • Chris on May 13, 2011 1:52 PM:

    I vote for option #1. If we do anything else, the GOP will continue to hold our economy hostage for more concessions.

    Again, Obama and Democratic leaders need to get on television and inform voters about the connection between not raising the debt-ceiling and any economic after-effects. If and when folks wake up to find themselves in a recession, they need to know why and who is responsible.

  • Doug on May 13, 2011 10:44 PM:

    Sorry, NO proposals by ANY Democrat! Either raising the debt ceiling is of such vital importance to everyone in the entire country, regardless of their political beliefs, that to mess with it is criminally reckless or it isn't.
    So far the Democrats have supported the former position. What possible reason can they now give to switch to agreeing that the debt ceiling or, for that matter, anything else that has such a potentially dire effect on the country, is now fair game for partisan politicing? Good luck with that!
    I would suggest that every time ANY question concerning the debt limit is asked of ANY administration official, their response should include the words "default" and "bankruptcy". Said officials should add that the present administration is preparing contingency plans that would stave off "defaulting" and "bankruptcy" as long as possible, but without an increase in the debt ceiling that is what the country has to prepare for.
    If the Republican/Teabaggers REALLY want to play "chicken" with the economy of this country, and the world, the citizens of this country should have an idea of what their "representatives" are risking...