Two Obvious Questions About Republican Strategy

| Wed Dec. 12, 2012 12:59 PM EST

Mitch McConnell says Republicans really, really want to cut entitlement spending:

“We tried to get the president to do it last year. We now have another opportunity here at the end of the year to try to engage that discussion again. We’ll have another opportunity later, when the debt ceiling issue arrives.”

....I asked McConnell whether Dems’ unity on this point will leave Republicans isolated if they attempt to use U.S. creditworthiness as a bargaining chip to secure cuts to major social insurance programs. “I think I can speak for every single Republican that we think a request of any president to raise the debt ceiling in the future should involve a discussion with whoever the president is about what we might do about the debt,” he said. “And we shouldn’t treat it like a Motherhood Resolution; that we shouldn’t airdrop it into Obamacare with no vote; that the decision to raise the debt ceiling is a perfect time to have a discussion about the debt.”

There are two peculiar things about all this. The first is the obvious one: Republicans are quite plainly scared to death of entitlement reform. They're happy to vote unanimously for symbolic bills like the Ryan budget because they know no one really takes them seriously. But if you ask them to put real, concrete cuts to Medicare and Social Security on the table, they tentatively suggest a couple of smallish items (raising the retirement age, adopting chained CPI) and then back off. The reason for this is pretty obvious: they know that long-term cuts won't affect the current deficit, while short-term cuts will provoke an angry backlash among seniors. And they can't afford that backlash since seniors make up a big chunk of their base.

There's nothing mysterious about this. It's the usual reason that entitlement reform is hard. Still, what is McConnell expecting? That if Republicans put enough pressure on Obama he'll eventually propose big cuts of his own? That doesn't even make sense. Surely McConnell knows that if Republicans really want to slash Medicare and Social Security, they're going to have to put their own proposals on the table. Obama simply has no incentive to do it himself.

The second peculiar thing about all this is also pretty obvious: why the obsession with the debt ceiling? It's an unusually reckless bit of extortion that opens up Republicans to legitimate scorn, but it's not really necessary. If Republicans want to fight over spending, they can instead fight over the budget. That would lead to a government shutdown a la 1995, followed by a deal of some kind. The pressure this puts on Obama is similar, but it's far more defensible. Republicans aren't refusing to pay their own bills and they aren't recklessly putting the creditworthiness of the United States at risk. So why not have this fight over the budget rather than the debt ceiling?

I suppose there are good answers to these questions, but I haven't seen them even though, as I said, they're both pretty obvious. Where's Politico when you need them?

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