For Republicans, the vote on whether or not to raise the debt ceiling appears critical not only for the upcoming elections but party unity as well. Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell concocted a scheme which may give President Barack Obama a political victory while placing Congressional Democrats in a bit of a bind. Under McConnell's plan three votes in stages would avert a crisis. But vulnerable Democrats in the South and Midwest would be called on to raise the debt even if cuts are not included, making them appear "soft" on the deficit. However the problem for McConnell is that Republicans in the House would be forced to backtrack on their principles.
Moreover it merely will delay the day of reckoning. Obama adeptly placed Republicans in a poor position by offering four trillion dollars in cut in exchange for raising income tax on the highest brackets. Immediately Republicans countered that raising taxes during a recession was folly. But Democrats countered that an austerity budget was no path to prosperity either. Republicans were perhaps under the illusion that Democrats were fond of self-destruction, eagerly eviscerating their agenda without concession one from the GOP. Obama appears the reasonable voice and McConnell fearing this is how the public sees it, quickly came up with his highly political compromise which solves nothing.
This problem for Republicans is a direct result of overblown rhetoric and cynical maneuvering. Tea Party caucus members cannot easily go back on their commitment to reduce the deficit without seeming opportunistic. Commentators such as Chris Matthews might see winking and nudging as the actions of "growups" trying to thread a difficult legislative needle, but more committed sorts see it as a sellout, and they might be right.
Both Democrats and Republicans have used hyperbole, sloganeering and gimmicks to fire up and expand the base. Citizen politicians, the "Mr. Smith goes to Washington" contingent, usually believe that they keep their promises as an obligation. The professionals dearly hope they don't. For Republican leaders the specter of 2008 haunts their Congressional delegations. At that time, they were stampeded and obliged to reverse an earlier action preventing a bailout of the big banks and AIG. The new Tea Party group sees this event in terms of "media manufactured hysteria." And unlike centrist of all political stripes they did not regard the bailout as good policy. For newly elected Republicans, the vote on the debt ceiling is hardly an easy one, and given the heavy handed tactics of the past it is not an act of irresponsibility to question whether the same approach is at work again.
But there is something called foolish consistency. When Obama offered the deep spending cuts, the GOP should have jumped on the band wagon and offered some modest tax increases. It reminds the public of the Democratic response to Richard Nixon's family assistance program, which would have been a major expansion of welfare. Instead Liberals believing that if it was offered by Nixon it was suspect, threw away an opportunity. So it is with Republican hardliners. Now the GOP appears cynical and in disarray, having rejected another Democratic concession.
However some can be forgiven for being suspicious of the process. Political pros can hail McConnell as a wizened old veteran simply taking care of business. But those who came to Washington to change the system - whether left of right see a deal which allows the present elite to monopolize power and prestige. To these committed representatives it is not particularly grown up to deceive. As for the threat of the system collapsing, they have the feeling they have seen it all before.
Yet Republicans by hanging tough on taxes have conceded the field to Obama. Neither revenue raising nor draconian cuts are particularly satisfactory. But Bill Clinton raised taxes in 1993, although Republicans like Phil Gramm predicted Armageddon. Indeed it helped launch the late prosperity of the 1990s. For the GOP "no new taxes" has become a mantra that might yet signal their ruin.