Going Down in Flames…To Rise Like A Phoenix (in the Primary)

So, the Federal Government is once again approaching the debt ceiling.  Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has said that he thinks that

“…for the president to ask for a clean debt ceiling, when we have a debt the size of our economy is irresponsible. So, we ought to discuss adding something to his request to raise the debt ceiling that does something about the debt or produces at least something positive for our country…”

What McConnell and his colleagues will discuss adding is a bit unclear at this point (though approval of the Keystone pipeline might be part of it), but Democrats are repeating President Obama’s earlier stance that there will be no negotiations based on the debt limit.

This seems like a stand-off in the making…or does it?

Setting aside the popular conception (with which I concur) that Congressional Republicans “lost” the previous fight on the debt ceiling, McConnell followed the above quote with the following statement:

“We’re never gonna default. The Speaker and I made that clear,”

Um, maybe this isn’t a stand-off in the making.  Maybe a “stand up, just to sit down?”  That’s not catchy, but it brings us to my point in this post.

I could argue that McConnell is pursuing a strategy of either looking “crazy” or trying to imply that he is “hemmed in” by his colleagues, as I have argued before regarding Boehner and his factious caucus.   But, I don’t think this is that.  Rather, McConnell’s unusual comments might be best understood as an attempt to send a costly signal to his constituents, as he is facing and already fighting a right-wing primary challenge by Matt Bevin.  I’ll quickly detail this argument.

Let’s suppose that McConnell is facing a primary challenge because some believe his conservative bona fides are lacking.  McConnell can scream as loud as he wants that he is as conservative, but Glenn Beck doesn’t think he’s good enough.

How can McConnell convince voters that he is a true conservative? Well, he can’t just say it—the voters he wants to convince with such a statement will understand that this is cheap talk.  He has to make the statement that he is “one of them” costly—it has to “pin him down” in some way.  This is tough to do with policy, given that he is the minority leader and his party does not control the White House.

So, my argument goes, he can publicly stonewall what is (hopefully) in the end a fait accompli—the debt ceiling increase—and take his lumps along the way.  This type of position will work only if it hurts McConnell in some verifiable way.  My too-clever-by-half argument is that he is setting exactly such a situation up for the voters who care to see that, at the least, he is willing to bleed for them.

His two statements above make it clear that (1) he is simply being difficult, and (2) he is willing to acknowledge that he will lose unless Obama is willing for some reason to compromise.  (Not saying Obama won’t—he might—but McConnell probably doesn’t know that Obama will.)

Arguably, by saying that he is going to try to drive a hard bargain on the debt ceiling while at the same time admitting he’ll ultimately support a clean debt ceiling increase,  McConnell has adopted a position of “I’m so conservative, I’m willing to fight A KNOWINGLY UNWINNABLE FIGHT FOR CONSERVATIVE `PRINCIPLES.'”[1]

To revisit the argument again before concluding, my point here is that McConnell was probably not speaking off-the-cuff: he is no idiot, and I believe he realizes that his position is internally inconsistent.  Most voters won’t care, but those who pay attention might, and the distinction between his statements and simply saying “awww, heck no—we aren’t going to give a clean debt ceiling increase” is that he purposely made clear that not only was he against default—he and Speaker Boehner have “made it clear” that “we’re never gonna default.”  That is, he explicitly pointed out that the GOP is very unlikely to get anything from this—and yet he’s willing to lose trying.

Because that’s just how flamboyantly conservative he is.

With that, I leave you with this.


[1] I apologize if my distaste for this narrative offends you, dear reader, but I will not accept that even flirting with violating the full faith and credit of the Federal Government is consistent with any reasonable rendition of conservative principles.  Trust, reliability, sanctity of contract—hell, even the facile analogy between running the government and the responsible financial management of a family or small business—-all run squarely against using the debt ceiling as a bargaining chip. Full stop.  That said, as a political scientist, I do not think McConnell is playing dirty—procedural stopgaps are rightly the fitting and necessary last bastion of the minority party.  (See what I did there?  I can link filibusters and debt ceilings, because that’s the way I’m wired: namely, short-circuited.)