Obama Isn't Out of Danger on Debt Ceiling Debate

Obama Isn't Out of Danger on Debt Ceiling Debate

By E.J. Dionne - July 14, 2011

WASHINGTON -- The wounded are especially dangerous fighters. President Obama now occupies the high ground in the debt-ceiling debate, having called the Republicans' bluff on the debt. He showed that deficit reduction is not now, and never has been, the GOP's priority. He dare not get overconfident.

After thwarting the deal that House Speaker John Boehner was cooking up with Obama, Rep. Eric Cantor, the majority leader and Boehner's rival, needs to show he knew what he was doing and recoup political ground. Cantor is likely to present Obama with spending cuts that the president once seemed to endorse as part of a large deal but will have to reject now that the big agreement is dead. There is still a lot of danger out there.

But it's already clear that history will show that Boehner, the old war horse, was a better political calculator than Cantor, the self-styled "young gun." Boehner saw an opportunity to make huge cuts in entitlement programs, shake off the severe damage done his party by Rep. Paul Ryan's budget, and ignite a war between Obama and the Democratic base.

Boehner made what, in the larger scheme of things, were modest concessions on tax increases, getting three times as much in spending cuts. Only House Republicans can think that three steps forward and one step back constitutes retreat. Boehner lives in the real world. Most members of his caucus live in Foxland or Rushville, where talk shows define the truth.

Obama thought solving a big problem would outweigh any political difficulties his deal with Boehner might cause him. But Cantor saved Obama a lot of trouble. He protected him from a bitter intra-party fight and made crystal clear that preserving low taxes for the wealthy and for corporations is the GOP's driving objective. Even the most resolutely centrist and cautious have been forced to concede this essential truth of American politics.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell -- he's astute like Boehner, but less interested in policy -- signaled on Tuesday that this whole adventure of tying a debt-limit increase to the quest for big spending cuts has become a losing strategy. His convoluted but clever proposal would make Democrats take all responsibility for increasing the debt cap. This gets the GOP out of its current box and forces Democrats to cast a lot of unpleasant votes. That would help Republicans take over the Senate in 2012, which is what McConnell cares about most.

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Copyright 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

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