Thursday, January 10, 2013

Jennifer Rubin's 'Best' Isn't Good Enough

In what some might see as an attempt to defy a popular definition of insanity, I saw a link to Jennifer Rubin's comment, "How to Win the Debt Ceiling Fight" and decided to see if she actually had something useful to say.
Republicans are struggling to devise a formula that simultaneously holds the president’s feet to the fire and yet escapes the charge that the GOP is playing Russian roulette with the country’s credit rating. As a practical matter I simply don’t think Republicans have the fortitude to hit the debt ceiling. To avoid the inevitable march-up-the-hill-down-the-hill routine there are two strategies (probably more) readily available.
That is to say, without actually explaining what a victory would look like, Rubin perceives two potential "winning strategies" for the Republicans. The first?
First, following the lead of Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) in 2011, Republicans could pass legislation explicitly prohibiting default on our obligations and spelling out a sequence for paying our bills so that we don’t default on bond holders, stop Social Security checks or stiff the troops. However, this still might require shutting down other parts of the government, which the GOP has shown no stomach to do.
Should somebody point out to Ms. Rubin that if she admits, at the outset, that the Republicans have "no stomach" to implement her first idea, there's no point in pretending it's serious? Note, Rubin's objection is that the Republicans have no follow-through. She ignores the logistical issues: if she knows of a way the House of Representatives can "pass legislation" that becomes law despite being rejected by the Senate and President, I would love to hear about it....

At the heart of Leahy's proposal is, I suspect, a recognition of how much power Congress delegates to the President when it forces a government shut-down. The idea would presumably be to structure the shut-down to damage Democratic interests while protecting Republican interests over a period of months while the government is unable to pay its bills. The problem thus goes well beyond "stomach", and into the territory of naked partisanship. The Republican Party would have to show its hand - to let the public know exactly what the price would be for its brinksmanship, and how much worse things would get over the ensuing weeks and months until default became inevitable. And... then what?

When the blackmail is explicit, the President will be able to point directly at the blackmail - "They say that if I don't agree to budget cuts that they won't identify, they're going to keep me from paying your Social Security retirement benefits>". What would be the Republican response to that? Would they develop the "stomach" to identify the cuts that they want? Rubin doesn't think so. So the President's response can be, "You control the purse strings - pass a bill enumerating the cuts you want in order to get us out of this catastrophe you've created," and the Republicans have to choose between looking like (malicious) fools, identifying the cuts, or folding. Even Rubin can see the folly of that approach.

What's Rubin's other idea?
The other approach, the smartest I have seen so far, comes from Keith Hennessey, who explains that Republican leaders begin by “assuring [the president] that we will not allow the government to default on its obligations. The debt limit will be increased. The questions we must resolve are first, whether we will simultaneously cut government spending and second, who will cast the votes for the debt increase.” The Democrats then have a choice: either agree to significant entitlement reform in conjunction with a debt increase to get Obama through at least 2014 or the House Republicans will ”deliver 50 Republican votes for a three-month clean extension.
Basically, the Republicans will say, "We're up against the debt ceiling and we want you to make cuts." The President will reply, "What cuts would you like to make?" The Republicans will once again come up with nothing (as Rubin says, "no stomach"). The President will reply, "If you don't want to cut the budget, then you are going to need to approve the spending you've already authorized." The Republicans will then pass a debt ceiling increase approving that spending.

That is the smartest Republican strategy Rubin has seen? She provide's Hennessey's rationale,
[T]his strategy would tell the President, “Hey, if you want your terrible policy, you’re going to have to deliver House Democratic votes for it. Good luck with that.” Either the President accepts and Republicans pound on the “Democratic debt limit increase” message every three months, or he agrees to cut spending. Either way, default risk is eliminated. Republicans will look responsible because they will be acting responsibly, and the markets couldn’t care less about which Members take political heat for casting these unpopular votes.
So every three months the Republicans will say, "Cut spending or we'll raise the debt ceiling," the President will reply, "If you're going to raise the debt ceiling anyway... but, okay, I'll humor you, what cuts do you want me to consider?" The Republicans will reply, as usual, with "We got nothing." Then the public will get mad at the Democrats because the debt ceiling goes up? And it's "lather, rinse, repeat every three months for the next four years"?


Not content to simply look foolish, Rubin has to embellish Hennessey's proposal with some terrible advice for her party:
I would add that under no circumstances should the negotiations (if the president chooses to entertain real entitlement reform) be in secret and/or between Republican leaders and the president. It’s time for regular business, with all lawmakers forced to cast votes. Shifting the focus away from the White House is hugely important in avoiding a (losing ) PR battle with the president and might actually deliver results.
Except this Republican grandstanding only works when they pretend it's the Republican Congress against an all-powerful President. If you reduce the role of the President, you make it obvious that Congress controls the proverbial purse strings - that the debt ceiling sideshow is irrelevant, and that the fundamental problem is that the Republicans in Congress keep authorizing the spending that necessitates government debt. You allow the President to point to the public, bipartisan negotiations and say, "When they come up with solutions, I'll be happy to review their budget reform bill, but for now they are running up the bills and it's my job to pay them." And then, per Rubin's proposal, the Republicans will raise the debt ceiling without condition. It's as if she wants her party to appear toothless.
A final word of advice: The Republicans should turn the president’s favorite class warfare game against him. He is the one defending Warren Buffett’s right to receive Social Security and free ride on Medicare; Republicans want to force rich people to pay more and get less so middle- and lower-income people have their benefits. Republicans may shy away from such arguments but unless the GOP captures the “fairness” argument and becomes the champion of the little guy, it will keep losing support and forever be outfoxed by the White House.
I am not sure that Rubin is going to convince more than a tiny handful of dimwitted people that somebody who pays FICA at the maximum rate for most of his career, and continues to do so well past retirement age, is getting a "free ride". If it needs to be explained, if you pay for insurance you are entitled to receive the coverage that you have paid for, even if you're rich - and Buffett, at age 82, is still paying into the system. Further, despite Rubin's eagerness to engage in what her party decries as "class warfare", even if you disqualify the top 1% from eligibility for Social Security and Medicare you will not materially affect the balance sheet.

Rubin apparently hopes that this form of Republican class warfare will confuse people. "We could cut Medicare spending by 1% if the richest 1% of the population were declared ineligible for Medicare. We, the Republican Party, don't think that's fair and to show that we stand for 'the little guy' we propose cutting everybody's Social Security and Medicare benefits."

Rubin's good at pouring out the snake oil, but if she wants people to actually buy it the trick is to confuse people into thinking they're getting something other than snake oil.

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