A debt crisis is a terrible thing to waste in a presidential election season, and Democrats and Republicans alike are responding on cue.
Latest to the fray is Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann. In a new "Waterloo" television ad running in Iowa leading up to the Aug. 13 straw poll, she promises she won't vote to raise the debt ceiling -- before even seeing the terms of the deal.
Though Bachmann is the most outspoken among Republicans, she is not alone. Several members of the Republican Study Committee, headed by Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, have signed on to a "Cut, Cap and Balance" plan pledging not to vote for any debt ceiling increase without serious spending cuts, spending caps and a balanced budget amendment passed by both the House and Senate.
Alas, this will never happen. A constitutional amendment has to pass both chambers by a two-thirds vote (290 in the House; 67 in the Senate). Thus, the signees won't vote to increase the debt limit unless John Boehner and Mitch McConnell somehow magically convince 50 or so Democrats in the House and about 20 in the Senate to vote for a balanced budget amendment. The pledge is, therefore, an impossible standard.
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As a side note, Bachmann hasn't signed the pledge, much to the disappointment of fellow conservatives, including Sen. Jim DeMint. But Bachmann, who is establishing herself as the hardest of the hard right, told a South Carolina town hall meeting that the pledge wasn't strong enough because it doesn't also include a demand to repeal President Barack Obama's health care overhaul.
Objectively, however, Bachmann and others are missing the big picture. They may be stirring the hearts of tea partyers steeped in stubbornness (is there no end to tea metaphors?), but are they being responsible?
What they're missing (or ignoring) is the enormous opportunity for conservatives that has taken shape since the beginning of the year. Just a few months ago, Obama was asking for a "clean" debt-limit increase. That is, an unconditional hike without spending cuts and no reforms.
Republicans responded by making clear that there would be no increase to the $14.3 trillion debt limit without fundamental reforms, including entitlements, and without spending cuts larger than the debt-limit hike, enforceable limits on future spending, and no tax increases.
Fast-forward through a few months of intransigence -- and a few friendly rounds of golf -- and the conversation has become something much different. The president's proposal for a deal that would save $4 trillion over the next 10 years through cuts to all major spending areas, including entitlements and the Pentagon, is otherwise known as a "sea change."
Of course, a quarter of that $4 trillion in savings would come from $1 trillion in new tax revenues, so the deal is far from perfect at this stage. Even so, in any other season Republicans would be staging parades.
No plan will please all. Spokesmen on both sides have made the requisite statements. Nancy Pelosi rejected cuts that would balance the budget "on the backs of America's seniors, women and people with disabilities." Boehner insisted that he won't support raising taxes "on the very people that we expect to reinvest in our economy."
Reaching an agreement -- or not -- will be a test of wills, but also of courage and of compromise. Few honest brokers think that we can prevent a financial catastrophe without both cuts and revenue increases, but there are surely ways to get there from here without necessarily punishing the weak or the strong.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, for example, has said he won't support raising taxes but is amenable to closing tax loopholes to create revenue. Democrats who resist any cuts to Social Security might find acceptable a suggestion to revise the way inflation is calculated in determining cost-of-living adjustments to beneficiaries.
Where there are wills, there are ways.
Meanwhile, not raising the debt ceiling is fraught with risks, not the least of which is creating greater uncertainty in financial markets in an already fragile recovery. Even prolonging raising the ceiling is potentially hazardous before a default happens, as investors take preventive actions that could distort the money markets.
Republicans have made enormous advances toward government reforms that were viewed as unachievable a year ago. Voting no may have become the aphrodisiac of small-government conservatives, but it is not necessarily an act of bravery or wisdom.
Sometimes it's just stubborn.