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Do you believe in magic?
The House speaker's debt-ceiling proposal is smoke and mirrors. That's what's good about it
 
David Frum
David Frum

Queen Victoria's first prime minister, Lord Melbourne, once explained cabinet government in this way: "It doesn't matter what damn lie we tell, so long as we all tell the same damn lie."

The debate over the John Boehner plan to raise the debt ceiling brings Lord Melbourne to mind.

The leaders of the Republican Party have rallied to champion the plan. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has endorsed it. The Wall Street Journal editorial page has endorsed it. Mitt Romney has endorsed it. Grover Norquist has endorsed it. Even Eric Cantor, John Boehner's ambitious number two, has endorsed it.

Despite all this weight of power behind it, the Boehner plan has stalled. The plan was first scheduled for a vote in the House on Wednesday. As leadership realized it lacked the votes to whip the plan through, the vote was postponed to Thursday, and the plan is being hastily revised by House leadership as this column is written. Insiders have begun to talk about a strategy for passing the Boehner plan in the Senate first, then trying to use a Senate vote to pressure the House. Of course, in that case, the plan will be labeled the Harry Reid-John Boehner plan, and its chances of acceptance by Tea Party Republicans in the House will drop accordingly.

The GOP leadership desperately needs rescue from this untenable situation, and it needs that rescue fast, within the next week.

What's the problem? It's the "damn lie" part.

The Tea Party Republicans are not wrong when they sense that their leadership is lying to them about the Boehner plan. It is mostly smoke and mirrors.

Republicans went to war over the debt ceiling in hopes of forcing major spending cuts from the Obama administration. 

To wage this fight, they discarded the venerable tradition that debt ceiling votes were symbolic, not real. They accepted the enormous, horrifying risk of forcing a default by the U.S. government. They invested vast hours of time, sacrificing every other legislative priority. (The 2010 health care reform law, for instance, remains on the books, unrepealed, unreplaced, and unreformed.)

And what have Republicans got to show for this gigantic and dangerous effort?

The Boehner plan will yield $1 billion in real savings in Year One. $1 billion! In Washington terms: Nothing. Most of the other $999 billion in promised cuts will be identified over the following nine years, by a panel of legislators to be selected by the leaders of both parties in both houses of Congress. Plus, there will be another debt ceiling vote. Yes, there is a promise of no tax increases. But everybody understands that whether or not any of this comes to pass will depend on elections as yet unpredictable. If Democrats do well in 2012, there will be tax increases when the Bush tax plans expire on December 31 of that year. Likewise, it's hard to imagine anyone facing the very different fiscal and economic challenges of 2016 feeling very bound by this vote in 2011. 

The main real-world impact of the Boehner plan will be to trigger another big vote on the debt ceiling within a year. Which may well make Tea Party Republicans in the House very nervous. They may sense the deep unpopularity of their votes on the record to rescind the Medicare guarantee for people under age 55. They may not want to vote for still more budget cuts all over again in the spring of an election year. They want a big showy triumph over Obama today, forcing the president and the Democrats to join them as co-authors of what would otherwise be election-losing cuts.

So the Tea Party Republicans are quite right to dismiss the Boehner plan as smoke and mirrors, a desperate establishment maneuver to manipulate and deceive. 

Yet Tea Party Republicans confront a party establishment unanimously representing the Boehner plan as a huge victory for the Tea Party, a crushing defeat for Obama, and an honest-to-God-for-real plan to shrink government starting now.

I cherish these sentences from an op-ed Wednesday by Bill Kristol

"To vote against John Boehner on the House floor this week in the biggest showdown of the current Congress is to choose to vote with Nancy Pelosi. To vote against Boehner is to choose to support Barack Obama."

Yet the Tea Party can rightly reply: But wait a minute — the Obama White House is defending the Boehner plan!

The fact that the Republican leadership is not honest, however, does not mean that it is not right. The GOP has marched itself into a fatal confrontation — not only with the Obama administration — but with the whole global economy. It has threatened to force an unnecessary U.S. bankruptcy unless it gets its unpopular way. 

The leadership condemns Tea Partiers as reckless sectarians. That's an apt description. But it applies not only to the Tea Party, but to every Republican who joined in this attempt to use the threat of bankruptcy as a tool of politics — the ultra-respectable Wall Street Journal just as much as the ranting talk-radio hosts.

If the GOP wants to end the impasse before the catastrophe, good for them. But much better if they had never started the impasse in the first place. The leaders may not be as heedless and reckless as the Tea Party. But their irresponsibility has done fully as much harm, and may yet do more.

The GOP leadership desperately needs rescue from this untenable situation, and it needs that rescue fast, within the next week. It cannot afford to be over-fussy about the rescue route.

So Republican leaders must pretend that the Boehner plan is a real thing. They must denounce and discipline those Republicans who fail to agree. They must hope that inflicting maximum annoyance on President Obama compensates for making minimal progress on America's future debt challenges. They must all tell the same damn lie. And all those Americans who live and work in the real economy must unhappily hope that the rest of the Republican Party is duped by the lie. Or at least, that the rest of the Republican Party will pretend to be duped.

 

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