In a brilliantly argued open letter to House Republicans, former Sen. Fred Thompson — nobody’s definition of a squishy moderate — makes the same points I have been trying to make, namely that the Boehner plan should be seen as a significant victory for conservatives. As Thompson writes, “I respectfully suggest that you rake in your chips, stuff them in your pockets, and tell the dealer to deal the next hand.” Why? Thompson explains:
There is only so much you can do in this deal. Put it into perspective. Right now we are on a path to a $26 trillion debt in ten years, and this is using bogus assumptions about growth and interest payments. The federal government spends over $10 billion a day. We have over $70 trillion in unfunded Medicare liabilities. A problem of this size can be dealt with only by persuading the American people what must be done on a consistent basis over a long period of time. It can’t be done with fits and starts and silver bullets. The issue is not where we will be when the debt-ceiling bill is done, it is where we will be in ten years.
And why is the Boehner bill a win?
At the beginning of the debt-ceiling debate, a realistic, optimistic outcome essentially would have been this: The Republicans would take the initiative and put their plan before the American people. The debt-ceiling increase would be accompanied by corresponding spending cuts. There would be no new taxes. You would drive a hard bargain in the face of unrelenting presidential and Democratic demagoguery — some of it on national television — drawing the attention and focus of the American people to the truth about our country’s fiscal and economic situation. Sure, people would initially ask, “Why are the Republicans now willing to take this thing to the wire when a debt-limit increase has usually been pro forma?” But at the end of the day, more Americans than ever before would understand what is going to happen to us as a country if we continue our current path. In this optimistic scenario, President Obama’s duplicity would become apparent, and he’d be politically diminished as a result.
As I argued, “Here’s what they understand: $1.2 trillion of savings from domestic discretionary programs, with real, enforceable budget caps, over ten years, is a huge accomplishment…. The history is this: Never before has Congress used the debt ceiling hike to force serious budget savings. Any successful use of this debate toward that end should be counted as a significant accomplishment.”
One of the biggest mistakes Republicans made in the 1995-96 “government shutdown” battle was failing to understand when they had won. Rather than pick up their winnings from the table and banking them, they kept fighting over mere scraps — and then ended up losing the scraps anyway, along with the PR victory that would have been theirs. They did the same thing when they needlessly fought over unimportant details of the impeachment inquiry of 1998, turning public anger that had been focused against Bill Clinton into sympathy for Clinton and anger at them. Under the rules proposed by Democrat Dick Gephardt, Clinton STILL would have been impeached, without the GOP looking bloodthirsty.
This debt limit fight has reached the same point: Conservatives have engineered what should be seen as a significant victory, but they aren’t accepting what they have won. Again, they could be snatching a major defeat from the jaws of a reasonably decent victory.