It's a shame that we have to use whatever leverage we have in Congress to get the president to deal with the biggest problem confronting our future. And that's our excessive spending.It's obvious that McConnell wanted his answer to sound really tough and teabaggery. When a GOP politician wants to get his base excited, there's nothing like chest-thumping about how Republicans are going to punish President Obama for being a bad boy—preferably while simultaneously blaming the president for forcing them into meting out the punishment.
But beyond his rhetoric, there's still a question of what exactly McConnell meant by "whatever leverage we have in Congress." Based on his past statements and those by John Boehner, you'd think he was saying that he is willing to hold the full faith and credit of the United States hostage, and clearly that's what he wanted to imply, but the interesting thing about the interview is that McConnell wasn't willing to come out and say that explicitly.
By my count, David Gregory asked McConnell five times to get more specific, and the quote at the top of the post was as close as McConnell came to endorsing another hostage crisis. For the most part, McConnell dodged by turning his rhetorical focus to the president, saying things like "Now the question is will the president lead? Why should we have to be bringing him to the table?" It was a similar story on CBS, where Bob Schieffer asked the same question three times and McConnell dodged getting specific three times. And on ABC, George Stephanopoulos asked five times without getting a clear answer.
To be clear, McConnell wasn't renouncing the threat of holding another hostage crisis, a position taken last week by The Wall Street Journal, Newt Gingrich, or Judd Gregg, each of whom said the GOP would ultimately cave on the debt limit and would be ill-served by making empty threats. But by refusing to explicitly say he'd be willing to "shoot the hostage," McConnell was at the very least trying to avoid the hostage-taker label. And that's an implicit acknowledgment that the politics of the debt limit really aren't as favorable to the GOP as its leadership has been claiming.
Sure, Republicans have the power to block a debt limit increase if Democrats don't agree to cuts in Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. But if they do that, it will be a political disaster for them. Not only will they put President Obama in the position of being able to save the economy with the trillion dollar coin, they'll be doing it over a refusal to cut benefits to the most popular public programs in America.
And they can't say that Democrats weren't willing to support cuts, because President Obama has repeatedly made clear that he is willing to support such cuts—as long as there is an equal amount of revenue. With Republicans refusing to entertain the notion of a balanced deal, they would be on extraordinarily weak ground demanding benefit cuts in exchange for paying the bills on debt we've already incurred—so weak that I'm convinced they wouldn't follow through on their threat. But even if they actually are willing to follow through, it doesn't impact how they should be handled.
As long as Republicans refuse to accept new tax revenue, there's two ways to look at their negotiating posture: either they are bluffing, in which case the correct move is to call their bluff, or they are serious about blowing up the economy, in which case the correct move is to refuse to negotiate with terrorists while simultaneously strengthening our defenses against them (in other words, getting moving on the trillion dollar coin idea). And no matter what scenario unfolds, there is no reason to appease them—and there's plenty of reason to not fear them.