There will be some kind of resolution for the current debt-ceiling debate well before November 2012 — my gut tells me there will be an agreement in principle by this time next week, but that’s just a hunch — but however and whenever it ends, this debate will have a huge impact on next year’s election.
The debate, regardless of how it’s being portrayed, isn’t really about who’s responsible and who isn’t. Like almost every other policy debate since the 2009 stimulus, it’s about two competing visions for the federal government going forward. Liberals want to find a way to pay for bigger government. Conservatives want to find a way to make government smaller.
The debt ceiling has gotten caught in this because conservatives feel there are few chances remaining to make sure this remains a debate rather than a foregone conclusion — that conservatives do not merely become, in Steven Hayward’s excellent phrase, the actuaries of liberalism. Republicans, still outnumbered in the Senate and out of the White House for at least 18 months, have only so many opportunities to put the fiscal brakes on. With Senate Democrats still seemingly content to continue not passing full-year budgets, the debt ceiling became one of those precious few opportunities.
The direction of the negotiations lately suggests, to me anyway, not that a deal won’t be reached but that both sides are coming to realize exactly how much they can milk the issue for. Whatever that deal ends up being — certainly not the “clean bill” President Obama requested at the start, certainly not the $9 trillion plan Sen. Tom Coburn outlined Monday, probably not Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s plan, possibly the $3.7 trillion plan the “Gang of Six” senators unveiled today (and about which I’ll have more to say later) — it will set the tone for next year’s GOP primaries and the general election.
For instance: If the House and Senate for now can only agree on a short-term measure to get by for a few more months (and I find Obama’s veto threat of a short-term measure is no more believable than the notion that House Republicans might not pass any kind of debt-ceiling bill), then the issue will remain in the headlines. Obama will be forced to defend his borrowing requests again, and maybe again. The GOP primaries would probably feature a lot of grandstanding that could box in the eventual nominee during the general election — a reminder that the president isn’t the only one who stands to lose politically if this issue drags on for several more months.
I actually think a longer-term debt deal (and remember, by “long term” we’re talking 18-24 months of borrowing authority, max) could be even riskier for Obama. He will make much of whatever spending cuts are included — but, as with the deal to finalize the fiscal 2011 budget, there will be a long time to scrutinize those cuts and determine whether they’re real. And, if recent and not-so-recent history is our guide, the cuts won’t be very real. Congressional Republicans would also be taking that risk, and they would have to answer for the results of the deal in their own races. But the eventual GOP nominee would be free to take a different stance without having to answer for what needs to be done in the meantime, as he/she would with a shorter-term deal.
For now, the Republican candidates have been on message trying to stiffen congressional Republicans’ spines. We’ll see if, and how, that changes once a deal is struck.
– By Kyle Wingfield