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The Utterly Wrong Beltway Myth Driving the Debt Ceiling Insanity

Belief in the mythic "swing voter" whose views happen to line up with the Washington establishment is setting the country on a course toward disaster.

On Monday night, Barack Obama painted the debt ceiling fight as a product of Republican extremism. He said that everyone in Washington agrees we need to enact deep and painful cuts, and that “the debate has centered around two different approaches. The first approach says, let's live within our means by making serious, historic cuts in government spending. Let's cut domestic spending to the lowest level it's been since Dwight Eisenhower was president.”

That, according to the president, is the “balanced,” Democratic approach – asking “everyone to give a little without requiring anyone to sacrifice too much.” But, “Unfortunately, for the past several weeks, Republican House members have essentially said that the only way they'll vote to prevent America's first-ever default is if the rest of us agree to their deep, spending cuts-only approach.”

All of that, for better or worse, is accurate. But the surreal dance over raising the debt ceiling is not only a result of Republican intransigence. It is also the result of a bipartisan embrace of a fundamentally flawed reading of the current political climate -- an abiding belief that, rather than being confused about how we came to run today's high deficits, there exists a "silent majority" of Americans who hate government, who want nothing more than an opportunity to support politicians who favor deep cuts to the public sector, and who are appalled at the lack of "bipartisan cooperation" standing in the way. Unfortunately, Republicans stand to gain the most from that misunderstanding.

Obama gave the speech after the GOP's refusal to release the economy they hold hostage even after the Democrats capitulated entirely to all their demands for cuts. Over the weekend, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid offered a package that would decrease spending by $2.7 trillion over the next decade, without any revenues increases, in exchange for raising the debt ceiling and avoiding default through the 2012 elections.

As the president noted, it's everything the GOP has asked for during the standoff. But they keep moving the goalposts. GOP leaders had previously opposed a short-term hike, arguing that it would cause “uncertainty” in the markets. So Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, is rolling out a counter-proposal that would raise the debt ceiling by around 1 trillion – enough to keep the government funded through the beginning of next year – in exchange for a trillion in cuts, and then a 12-member, bipartisan “ super-Congress” would come up with another round of deep cuts, and their recommendations would get an automatic up-or-down vote on the eve of an election year.

With offers on the table that fall well to the right of what even Republican voters want, why does the GOP refuse to accept victory? On its face, there are two reasons. First, Boehner doesn't have the votes within his own party – a group of House Republicans who are pushing the ludicrous “cut, cap and balance” bill have already  rejected his counter-offer – and bringing any bill to the floor that might attract enough Democratic votes to push it over the top would surely cost him his speaker's gavel. Second, while Reid's proposal gives them everything they wanted in terms of cuts without revenues, it leaves Medicare intact. Republicans very much want concessions on Medicare in order to blunt Democratic attacks on incumbents for supporting Rep Paul Ryan's, R-Wisconsin, plan to privatize Medicare.

But the larger context in which this fight is playing out is important to understand. On the same day that Republicans rejected Reid's offer, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman penned his 1000th homage to a mythic creature: the centrist “swing voter” whose views line up remarkably well with those of the Washington establishment. Friedman calls them the “radical center,” and has long pined for a third party that would fight hard for their values – perhaps the most over-represented interests in Washington today.

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