Republicans' real goal: Cynical campaign fodder

If you squint really hard, you can kind of see what Republicans hope to get out of this debt limit crisis

Published September 26, 2013 5:54PM (EDT)

Mitch McConnell, John Boehner                                                                             (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Mitch McConnell, John Boehner (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

By now you probably know that Republicans are asking President Obama to implement Mitt Romney's campaign agenda in exchange for increasing the debt limit (i.e., give us our losing platform or we'll blow up the economy).

Liberals are responding with appropriate howls of outrage. Jonathan Chait writes, "The fact that a major party could even propose anything like this is a display of astonishing contempt for democratic norms."

And indeed, the demands are so outrageous, I think a more appropriate response to them is mockery, which is more or less what they're getting from President Obama.

But if you squint really hard and cock your head just right, you can kind of see what Republicans hope to get out of this "offer," even if substantively they come up empty handed. Specifically, they'll get a bunch of campaign fodder.

Take a look at the full list of demands. The prize is the Obamacare delay -- a non-starter. There are also some process reforms that protect them from political comeuppance for the tax and spending policies they support. But the rest is just GOP gravy. Tort reform, the Keystone XL pipeline, rescinding Obama's coal plant regulations. And so on.

What's missing are the big ticket items they don't actually want to vote for in a real legislative negotiation. Medicare privatization. Chained CPI. Those didn't make the cut. Instead, it's all stuff they want and stuff they know some Democrats have a hard time opposing. If they send a bill like this over to the Senate -- there's reason to believe this bill won't clear the House -- it looks an awful lot like Dems will be able to strip all of the riders using the same majoritarian process they're currently employing to hive Obamacare defunding off of the government spending bill. That will require asking vulnerable Dems to vote against things that might cause them problems in their states.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell gets how this game is played. "For all those Democrats who shanked it back in 2006, here's your opportunity for a mulligan," he said on the Senate floor Wednesday, referencing a rider to defund Obamacare. "All we need are five Democrats to show enough courage to stand against their party and with the American people on this vote. That's enough to pass the bill, to keep the government open, and to keep Obamacare funding out of it."

Dismissing McConnell's pseudo-sincere plea is easy when the demand is defunding Obamacare, or, in the case of the debt limit fight, when it's scores of extraneous riders lumped together. But what if it were, say, Keystone, and the greenhouse gas regs? Suddenly it would be harder for Harry Reid to keep 50 votes together.

If House Republicans understood the limits of their power, or had any semblance of strategic unity, they'd limit their demands to items like that. That would put Obama's iron clad vow not to negotiate over the debt limit to the test. Instead, they're starting with this insane proposal Dems can laugh off pretty easily and crossing their fingers that Obama will pick up the phone and call John Boehner.

That's not going to happen. But if Senate Dems strip these riders from the House's debt limit bill and send back a clean counteroffer, Republicans can winnow their demands, and return it with fewer riders attached. In theory this process could go on for a couple weeks until time runs out and Dems are (possibly) faced with a take-it-or-leave-it proposition, which actually includes items plenty of them support. Then the debate would pivot to the sanctity of the principle that no president should have to concede anything to avoid a debt default. The problem for Boehner is that he starts losing tons of GOP votes when the House's position isn't completely outrageous. And once he needs Democratic support he'll have to accept the reality that most if not all of these requests are non-starters.

By Brian Beutler

Brian Beutler is Salon's political writer. Email him at and follow him on Twitter at @brianbeutler.

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