Winning By Losing

By Mike Dorf

In my new column on Verdict, I unpack Senator Mitch McConnell's "last-choice" plan for addressing the debt limit impasse and also analyze a few constitutional issues it raises.  (Bottom Line: It's not seriously vulnerable to constitutional challenge.)  Here I want to record some thoughts on the broader strategy of deliberate capitulation.

As I note in the column, the McConnell proposal is basically a complete capitulation to President Obama.  Why would Senator McConnell think it's better to lose completely than to get some sort of compromise that goes some way towards the Republicans' goals of substantial budget cuts--especially when the compromise that Obama was offering essentially met their budget-cutting goals, while containing only relatively modest tax increases?
One possibility is simple political reality.  For their own reasons, many Republican House members are unwilling to raise the debt ceiling at all, or unwilling to do so without what they can sell as a total victory, even though some of those same House Republicans may be willing to accept the political cover that the McConnell proposal gives them--the ability to say that they didn't vote to raise the debt limit.  Of course, that raises the question of why they think the McConnell proposal gives them cover, but let's put that issue aside.  I want to focus on a different possibility.

The other kind of political cover that the McConnell plan provides has been described by Senator McConnell himself.  By effectively giving President Obama everything  he wants on the debt ceiling, Republicans avoid taking "ownership" of a bad economy, going into an election year.  Assuming the factual predicates turn out to be true--an admittedly questionable assumption--this makes quite a bit of sense.  Indeed, it's a little surprising we don't see it more often.  That is, one could imagine a savvy minority political party deliberately going along with some legislative program they oppose so that they can turn around later and blame the majority party for having messed up.

We don't see this approach very often in part because there's a political price to pay.  Ideological party loyalists would not want to see their representatives voting for programs they deem anathema.  Centrist voters might be fooled by the minority party's apparent willingness to cooperate (independents like that sort of "bipartisanship"), but there's an even better way to appeal to centrists: Obstruct the majority party so that they don't get to do what they want, then pretend that they did, and then blame them.

This is basically what happened on the stimulus in 2009.  Keynesian economists were warning that the stimulus Congress passed would do some good but was too small to really jump-start the economy in a sustainable way.  And they were right.  So the right and center-right did everything they could to minimize the size of the stimulus--out of a combination of sincere but misplaced fears about the budget and political cynicism.  Now they routinely refer to the "failed stimulus," even though a real stimulus wasn't tried.  President Obama played into their hands by shaving down his requested stimulus from the get-go, so that he can't come back now and say something like "I wanted a much bigger stimulus."

So judged against the recent political strategy of obstruction-plus-finger-pointing, the new strategy of capitulate-then-blame is refreshingly honest.  Two cheers for Senator McConnell!