The Wisdom of McConnell's Debt-Ceiling Plan

It may look like a lousy deal for Republicans, but it isn't that bad.

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Mitch McConnell's sudden and shocking "contingency plan" to allow President Obama to raise the debt ceiling is getting pilloried by most conservatives and praised by liberals like the Washington Post's Ezra Klein. Most people want to know--and not just because the plan is incredibly confusing--what is he thinking? McConnell is offering to let Democrats raise the debt ceiling without demanding any policy concessions at all. Instead, his plan would impose political pain on Democrats, forcing them into a series of unpalatable votes to raise the debt limit.

Here's one reason why conservatives should be a little more favorably inclined toward McConnell: if you take him at his word that this is a last-ditch plan, and ponder the alternatives, it's actually not such a bad option. McConnell is nothing if not a realist. He knows Democrats won't sign off on a debt-reduction deal that doesn't raise revenue** and so he has to think ahead to what's likely to happen. Well, what's likely to happen is that at some point in the coming weeks, the financial markets will freak out--and most Americans will too. This is referred to on the Hill as the "TARP scenario," meaning a replay of the stock-market collapse that followed the House's rejection of the first TARP bill in the fall of 2008. The great fear among some conservatives is that a replay of the TARP scenario would allow President Obama to assume the role of "adult"--he's been laying the groundwork, if you haven't noticed--and demand a "clean" debt-ceiling vote that the suddenly alarmed public would support. The vote would likely succeed. And conservatives will have lost all their leverage and been vilified to boot.

Lousy option, right? McConnell's plan, bitter though it may be to true-believing Tea Partiers, lays down an alternative that, in the event of a TARP scenario, would leave Republicans in much better stead. It wouldn't do anything to reduce the deficit, but by forcing incumbent Democrats to cast unpopular votes it could very well improve the Republicans' chances of winning back the Senate next year--which happens to be the very thing that Mitch McConnell covets most. And if you're a conservative, and you're being honest with yourself, that's not such a bad consolation prize.

**I actually don't agree with this and if sufficiently motivated/caffeinated will explain why tomorrow