It May Be Desperate, but At Least It’s Juvenile

by Jonathan Rauch

I'm trying to get my mind around Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's trial-ballooned and, I expect, probably short-lived scheme to avoid a default on the country's obligations. The idea is to set things up so that the debt limit can be raised without any Republican votes. The unpopular job would get done with Republicans' tacit consent, but only Democrats would put their fingerprints on it.

I see two small(ish) problems with the scheme, and a big one. First small(ish) problem: Why will Tea Partiers like a devious method to raise the debt limit any better than straightforward method? If I know my Tea Partiers, they won't. Rather, McConnell's idea will symbolize everything they think is wrong with Washington (and with the Republican establishment) and it will bomb with the grassroots.

Second small(ish) problem: Why be confident that House Democrats will play ball? They will see themselves as being set up to accept Republicans' responsibility in order to become targets for Republicans' attack ads. They could (1) take that offer and bail out the House majority and get attacked for it; (2) decline the offer by joining Republicans in boycotting debt-limit increases, in which case we're back where we started; or (3) demand a price for their votes in the form of, say, higher taxes on the wealthy, in which case we're back where we started. Would you pick No. 1?

Big problem, now. McConnell is drawing praise for being a grownup, and that's fair, but only in the sense that it's mature for a child to punt to her parents.

The question about the Tea Party has always been whether, once in power, it could be more than a protest movement—that is, whether it could govern. Governing means compromising, which Tea Partiers think is the root of our problems. So far, they're staying with protest and punishing any Republican who tries to make a deal.

In response, cornered Republican leaders are flailing to have it both ways: retain the powers of elective office while offloading the responsibilities onto Democrats. That was the gist of House Speaker John Boehner's revealing definition of "balance" (italics added): "The administration gets its debt limit increase, and the American people get their spending cuts and their reforms." See? Republicans embody the nation's collective will, Democrats own the government.

Unfortunately, that's not the division of responsibility the Constitution envisions, nor will it amuse the almost 80 percent of the public who are not Tea Party enthusiasts. I continue to feel more pity for the Republican leadership than anger at them. I hope, for their sake, they can find a way to blink and do a deal before the public really tunes in, because the longer this goes on, the more juvenile they look.