WASHINGTON—A debt crisis is a terrible thing to waste in a presidential election season, and Democrats and Republicans alike are responding on cue.
The news Saturday night that Republicans won't support a $4 trillion deficit reduction plan was a devastating blow to the many who had begun to hope that a big bipartisan solution was possible.
House Speaker John Boehner issued a statement saying that the $4 trillion deal that he and President Obama had favored was off the table: "Despite good-faith efforts to find common ground, the White House will not pursue a bigger debt reduction agreement without tax hikes," Boehner said in the statement. "I believe the best approach may be to focus on producing a smaller measure, based on the cuts identified in the Biden-led negotiations, that still meets our call for spending reforms and cuts greater than the amount of any debt limit increase."
While the Biden proposal is half the deal Boehner, Obama and others had hoped for, it is still something more than anyone could have expected even a few months ago. And that perspective is worth considering as both Republicans and Democrats threaten to walk away from any agreement that would lead to raising the debt ceiling.
Take, for example, 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.
And Bachmann 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.
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 Boehner and Mitch McConnell somehow magically persuade 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.
As a side note, Bachmann hasn't signed the pledge, saying that it wasn't strong enough because it doesn't also include a demand to repeal Obama's health-care overhaul.
But Bachmann and others are missing the big picture. They may be stirring the hearts of tea partiers 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 or 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 much different. Just getting the president to consider significant cuts in major spending areas, including entitlements and the Pentagon, is otherwise known as a "sea change."
No plan will please all, obviously. And the meetings among top leaders have been 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 poor or the wealthy.
Where there are wills, there are ways.
Meanwhile, not raising the debt ceiling is fraught with peril. 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.
Kathleen Parker's email address is kathleenparker(at)washpost.com. (c) 2011, Washington Post Writers Group.