Boehner Discovers the Best Debt Limit Fight Is an Imaginary One

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The last time House Speaker John Boehner hosted a nail-biting debt-ceiling fight, it didn't go so well for him. The Tea Partiers who wanted a fight thought he caved and everyone else thought the House Republicans looked reckless. But Boehner's figured out a better way to play brinksmanship: imagine you're fighting about the debt limit long before you have to. On Tuesday, he praised the whole gut-wrenching process of using what had been a routine legislative procedure as a way to get what he wants. "We shouldn't dread the debt limit. We should welcome it. It's an action-forcing event in a town that has become infamous for inaction."  

One of the reasons D.C. has that reputation for inaction is that talking about fake fights is a whole lot easier than waging real ones. Here's the thing: the earliest date that the federal debt limit will next need to be raised is January 2013. The Bush tax cuts, which Boehner is expected to try to get extended in exchange for raising the debt ceiling, expire on January 1. And no deal before then will trigger $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts, including $500 million in defense cuts. Those are all faraway dates that exist in what basically is an imaginary land of "after the presidential election." No one really knows what will happen between now and then. That's why there is some truth to Boehner's clarification on Wednesday, when he told NBC "I'm not threatening default." That's because, at least for 8 months or so, he can't.

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But what he can do in the meantime is talk as if he is in the midst of a very dramatic debt limit fight. "Yes, allowing America to default would be irresponsible," he said on Tuesday, echoing a Tea Party talking point. "But it would be more irresponsible to raise the debt ceiling without taking dramatic steps to reduce spending."  Many have written that it makes sense that Boehner would want a replay of last summer -- threatening default is Boehner's only leverage to prevent fiscal policy from shifting "far, far, far to the left," The Washington Post's Ezra Klein writes,  it's the best way for Boehner to protect the Bush tax cuts, Talking Points Memo's Brian Beutler.

But there's an even bigger reason that Boehner can't start a debt ceiling fight between now and the end of the year: because no presidential campaign would want something as unpredictable and chaotic to contend with during an election. "Showdown" or "standoff" or "debacle" are not really words that campaigns like to be associated with. And for better or worse, from about June through November, presidential nominees pretty much own their party's agenda. 

Romney is, of course, unified with the rest of the Republican Party in starting a new push on the federal debt. Look how beautifully all the talking points align: 

  • The Republican National Committee has been putting out ads this month week attacking Obama for not living up to his 2008 promises to cut spending and debt.
  • Republican super PAC American Crossroads (which is officially independent!) will spend $25 million attacking Obama on broken promises, including to cut the deficit in half, the Associated Press reports.
  • Romney called the growing debt a "prairie fire" in Iowa Tuesday. In Florida Wednesday, Romney, too, mentioned Obama's promises. "You see, he was very critical of his predecessor for the debts his predecessor put in place. And sure it's true you can't blame one party or the other for all the debts this country has, because both parties in my opinion have spent too much and borrowed too much when they were in power," Romney said, according to NBC News' Garrett Haake. The speech was given in front of a huge debt clock.

In his remarks Tuesday, Boehner said he'd bring on another debt fight sooner if he could. "We shouldn’t wait until New Year’s Eve to give American job creators the confidence that they aren’t going to get hit with a tax hike on New Year’s Day." It makes sense for Republicans to shift to talking about the debt, NBC News' First Read writes, now that the unemployment rate is a little bit better, especially in swing states. But even if the House Republicans figured out a way to engineer an earlier deadline for a debt fight, the Romney campaign would never let them since it would mean giving up something presidential campaigns hold very dear: control.

Last year, many House Republicans said what most economists considered crazy things -- like that maybe America defaulting on wouldn't be so bad. Romney's former rival, Michele Bachmann, claimed the U.S. wouldn't default even if the debt limit wasn't raised. In trying to wrangle the House freshmen last year, Republican Whip Kevin McCarthy "recognized that it would be counterproductive to lecture the freshmen about the economic hazards of not raising the debt ceiling," The New York Times reported. Some didn't even believe the looming crisis was real. "A solid majority of the conference does not believe that when the clock strikes midnight that everything is going to just blow up," a Republican House aide told Time. Rep. Louie Gohmert said, "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

Those guys haven't changed their minds about these issues. The only difference is this time Romney would have to answer for them. In a taste of how things could go, note how in his interview with The Washington Post's Ezra Klein, Sen. Tom Coburn indicates a Romney victory wouldn't ensure fiscal discipline:

One of my biggest worries is what happens if Romney wins and Republicans control both chambers, do they have the courage to do what it takes to fix the country? It’s kind of their last chance. If they’re given the favor of control and they don’t act on it, why should you ever trust them again? You shouldn’t. It’ll be the death knell of the Republican Party...

If President Obama is president again, those problems are still there and we have to solve them. He knows that. We’ve had conversations where he’s told me he’ll go much further than anyone believes he’ll go to solve the entitlement problem if he can get the compromise. And I believe him. I believe he would.

On top of that, a second helping of debt drama is a reminder that Romney's own performance during negotiations last year came under a lot of criticism -- he waited till the very last minute to denounce the deal that eventually passed. No doubt: either President Obama or President-Elect Romney will have a lot to deal with when the debt ceiling needs to be raised in 2013. But between now and then, all you can watch is people rehearse their lines.


This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.