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The Great Debt Ceiling Gambit

Be careful what you wish for.

1:05 PM, Jul 13, 2011 • By FRED BARNES
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Recall the old saying: Be careful what you wish for. In the struggle over raising the debt limit, it applies to President Obama as well as to congressional Republicans.

Obama

Obama wants an increase in the debt limit of $2.4 trillion, which would provide the government with enough money to last through the end of 2012. For him, there are enormous risks in gaining the authority to borrow this much money and adding to a national debt of more than $14 trillion. And the $2.4 trillion would come on top of nearly $4 trillion the president has already added in debt since he took office. That’s $6 trillion-plus in new debt in one presidential term.

Putting the country all the more in a bind to allow more spending by Washington – that has little or no appeal to most Americans, especially the most critical voting bloc of all, independents.

In the past, boosting the debt limit has been routine, though not without opposition. It happened seven times during the George W. Bush administration. It’s an issue that has rarely spilled over into presidential campaigns.

But just as the 2010 election was about spending and debt, so will the 2012 presidential race. And that issue, along with a weak economy and high unemployment, are bound to put Obama at a political disadvantage against his Republican challenger.

Obama would be forced to explain to the country why this much borrowing and spending was essential. No doubt he could come up with a lot of excuses. But it’s unlikely these would be any more persuasive than his current set of alibis (e.g., Bush, the Japanese tsunami, and Greece).

Obama desperately needs a way to blame Republicans for the bad economy. If Republicans deny him a debt limit increase, temporarily, that might do the trick.

It would give him grounds – utterly false grounds – for shifting the blame to Republicans. Obama would no doubt leap to exploit the opportunity. A few examples come to mind:  delayed Social Security checks, no meat and poultry inspections, and postponed payments to armed forces personnel.

The public outcry would be raucous. And that’s on top of any disruption in financial markets and the economy that even a short-lived rejection of a debt limit increase might cause. Given this, Republicans would reverse themselves and approve the debt limit hike in short order.

Republicans can avoid this scenario. But they’d have to give up their effort to attach serious spending cuts to the debt bill. The president has made it all but impossible to get cuts without a large tax increase. That’s a compromise they must turn down.

Republicans had figured the debt limit vote would give them leverage to insist on spending cuts – a strategy that made sense to me. However, they’ve now been outmaneuvered by Obama.  He’s cleverly using every political tool at his disposal, and he has more of them than Republicans do.

By yielding, Republicans leave Obama with full responsibility for borrowing and spending trillions more. They deny him the means to escape the blame for an economy that probably won’t be much stronger next year than today.

Also, Republicans would avert a disastrous split in their party caused by agreeing to a tax increase. If they have any doubts about the damage a rupture would cause, they should recall what happened to President George H. W. Bush after he reneged on his “no new taxes” pledge in 1990. 

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