Strategic Retreat On Debt Limit?

Jonathan Chait draws attention to a piece by AEI’s James Capretta at National Review that he thinks might signal where Republicans are about to go on the debt-limit negotiations.

It’s fascinating, all right. Capretta explicitly argues for letting the hostage go on grounds that (a) the GOP doesn’t want to get blamed for triggering or even risking a debt default,(b) Obama won’t agree to any acceptable “entitlement reforms,” (c) Republicans need to put the tax increase genie right back in the bottle, and (d) the just-don’t-deal posture positions Republicans to run against Obama’s mismanagement of fiscal affairs in 2014.

Like John Boehner, Capretta speaks of Republicans in Congress supporting month-to-month increases in the debt limit. But while Boehner seemed to be talking about using this tactic to ratchet up pressure for a big spending-cut agreement, Capretta is explicitly arguing against any agreement, and seems to think the short-term debt limit extensions are a way for GOPers to signal their grudging willingness to discharge the country’s obligations without conceding they are legitimate.

So is Chait right and Capretta is signaling a strategic retreat by Republicans on the big debt-limit fight they seemed to be spoiling for so recently? Hard to say. Chait is convinced that Republicans (with Paul Ryan influencing them behind the scenes) have decided that any old “entitlement reform” isn’t worth giving in to Obama on taxes. No, the big goal is privatization of health care, Ryan’s little red wagon, and it’s best to hold out for that, presumably after the midterms or even after 2016:

What is the point of cutting retirement benefits, if their One True Solution to long-term deficits is not tried? Why agree to a plan that would appear to reduce the deficit, and may even do so for a while, and thus take away the party’s ability to campaign against runaway deficits in 2016, and elect, say, Paul Ryan, and implement its plan?

I dunno. It’s not clear to me that Ryan or much of anyone else is more concerned with instituting premium support for Medicare than more generally disabling the New Deal/Great Society programs. Ryan’s own budget was a lot less focused on Medicare than on decimating low-income programs, and not just Medicaid. And besides, conservatives have a strong tendency to identify “reforms” of entitlements with steps taken to make beneficiaries bear more of the cost of retirement and health care, regardless of whether it’s the federal government, the states or the private sector that’s managing the programs.

Indeed, in talking of Medicare “reforms” Republicans should push for until a premium support system can be enacted, Capretta links to an article pushing for more cost-sharing with beneficiaries (code for benefit cuts) as crucial.

So it don’t know if the strategy laid out by Capretta represents the kind of shift in goals Chait is talking about, or simply an elaborate rationalization for avoiding a fight Republicans can’t win. It will be interesting to see if Capretta is echoed, damned or ignored by his fellow-conservatives.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.