Mitch McConnell’s not-so-secret strategy

When it comes to raising the debt ceiling, House Republican leaders have been sticking to an aggressive hostage strategy: give them the (unspecified) cuts or the GOP will create a recession on purpose. Thus far, Senate Republicans haven’t played much of a role, though that started to change yesterday.

The Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, said Thursday that the debt ceiling debate provides Congress with a rare opportunity to make sweeping changes to entitlement programs and spending, and that he would not vote to raise the level without significant budget cuts and revisions to Medicare and Medicaid.

“Divided government is the best time — and some would argue the only time — where you can do really big stuff,” Mr. McConnell said at a news conference after a meeting between President Obama and Republican senators. He said he had thought the meeting would be a waste of time but was pleased that it was a “candid exchange.”

This is, of course, identical to the House leadership’s threat. McConnell will help cause an economic catastrophe, deliberately, unless Democrats give Republicans what the GOP demands.

The only difference is what McConnell was willing to concede yesterday about the underlying strategy. More so that House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), the Senate Minority Leader yesterday said he wanted to do “really big stuff” — most notably on entitlements — as part of a possible debt deal.

The interesting part was McConnell’s candor. He freely admitted that if leaders from both parties agreed to sweeping changes to entitlements, the political fallout would be minimal.

“When you do something together, the result is that it’s not usable in the election,” McConnell told reporters. “I think there’s an understanding that if there’s a grand bargain, none of it will be usable in next year’s election.”

As the kids say, “Duh.”

Look, this is so obvious, it usually goes unsaid, but it’s important to understand. McConnell and other Republicans are eager, practically desperate, to make major changes to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security — changes that the public won’t like. What the GOP needs more than anything is bipartisan cover. They want Obama to make it so, to use McConnell’s word, this isn’t “usable” in the next election, because if Republicans tried to do this on their own, the electoral consequences would be severe.

That leaves Republican leaders with two choices to get what they want. Option #1: the GOP can agree to some tax increases and Pentagon cuts as part of a grand bargain with Democrats. Option #2: the GOP can threaten to destroy the economy, on purpose, unless Democrats give in to Republican demands on entitlements.

Guess which one the GOP prefers?

Neither McConnell nor Boehner have been willing to speak publicly about exactly what’s on the GOP’s ransom note, but that’s part of the game, too — they’re keeping things vague so they can wait and see how far Democrats will go to fill in the blanks.

With that in mind, the White House is also effectively left with two options. Option #1: tell Republicans there will be no deal and when the economy crashes, it will be their fault. Option #2: tell the GOP negotiations can proceed after Republican leaders start adding details to their own ransom note.