Talking Points

McConnell's debt ceiling tightrope

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is getting it on all sides for his latest debt ceiling maneuver, a temporary fix to avoid the Treasury Department's Oct. 18 deadline for hitting the borrowing limit. (All 50 Democrats and 11 Republicans in the Senate took that deal Thursday night.) Liberals still view the Kentucky Republican as a hostage-taker, jeopardizing the country's credit rating to score political points ahead of the midterm elections. Conservatives and former President Donald Trump have slammed him for caving, granting a short-term debt limit solution with no concrete trades from Democrats.

McConnell's triangulation here is more clever than either set of critics admits. He's a savvy political operator who got his only spending concessions from the Obama administration through debt ceiling brinkmanship a decade ago. But he also saw his fiscal responsibility — which, as with many Republicans, seems selective, as deficits and debt only are treated as urgent matters when Democrats hold power — painted as irresponsible when the risk of default loomed. In one such episode in 2011, the uncertainty led Standard & Poor's to downgrade the federal government's credit rating.

McConnell's middle-way maneuvering makes more sense in that context. The idea behind this current bit of Bill Clinton-style triangulation is to position Republicans as anti-debt but not pro-default. It comes as the White House is pushing back with furious counter-messaging about GOP spending under Trump being the real reason we've hit the debt ceiling in the first place, even if Democrats are trying to pass massive new spending proposals.

But there's a risk of being too clever. Like most leadership types, McConnell isn't really trusted by either side of the political divide. While inside the Beltway, the nickname "Cocaine Mitch" has turned into a badge of honor, liberals deem him ruthless, and conservatives largely view him as an establishment operator. Odds are there will be some last-minute solution to this debt crisis, but he should take care to ensure it.

McConnell wants Democrats to own the debt without Republicans owning any chance of default. Only time will tell whether that strategy turns out to be a self-own.