Pay close attention to this, because it speaks directly to how Congressional Republicans’ destructive legislative strategy in 2011 and Mitt Romney’s last minute shuffle to the center are actually a singular strategy.
Mitt Romney’s final pitch to voters is that an Obama victory assures another debt limit standoff — eliding, for obvious reasons, that the debt limit standoff in 2011 was a Republican contrivance, and a debt limit standoff in 2013 will be a Republican contrivance as well. Elect him, he says, and the crisis won’t happen.
On the surface that seems tragically plausible.
If he wins, does anybody imagine John Boehner will enter brinksmanship with Romney to cut programs Romney doesn’t want to cut? Absolutely not.
Sadly a number of newspaper editorial boards around the country have been snookered by this appeal — seemingly blind to the cynical nihilism underlying it.
But setting aside questions and comments about the appropriateness of campaigning on and governing under the threat of economic calamity, I don’t actually think this is an accurate forward reading of the situation. Neither Democrats nor Republicans are interested right now in speculating about their guy losing, or creating the impression that they’re preparing for that contingency. So this is inherently speculative. But if anything, I imagine that a Romney victory would result in a worse debt limit standoff than we’re likely to see under Obama.
Remember, the early conventional wisdom that a Romney victory would accompany a GOP takeover of the Senate seems to have been badly misplaced. It looks an awful lot like Romney’s real governing challenge, if he’s elected, will be getting along with Harry Reid. For instance, if Reid doesn’t want to keep cutting taxes, he can hold zero votes in the lame duck and allow the country to fall off the fiscal cliff. Fun times for Romney! And significantly higher, not lower, taxes.
If Romney and Boehner try to steamroll Reid into cutting government programs Democrats like Reid can just do nothing and the government will shutdown. And, of course, when Romney and Boehner want to raise the debt limit, Reid can object to their proposed cuts, or ask for higher taxes, or pretty much do what he wants.
I’m not saying he would turn Republican tricks around on them. Nor am I recommending any particular legislative approach. But Reid would essentially find himself in Boehner’s current position — in control of a chamber of Congress, but unencumbered by the need to protect the president politically.
Obama, by contrast, would be able to argue that his re-election represents a repudiation of 2011-style brinksmanship. He’d be a lame duck president who, as the White House has indicated for months, wouldn’t negotiate with House Republicans over a debt limit increase a second time around. They’d have to genuinely come to terms with the unsustainable nature of their threat.
Maybe Romney’s right, and Republicans would choose to default on the debt anyhow. Maybe Reid would roll over and let Republicans use must-pass legislation to repeal Obamacare, slash Medicaid, privatize Medicare and on and on. But a look at who would have the leverage suggests to me that things would be much dicier under Romney-Reid-Boehner than under another turn at Obama-Reid-Boehner. If you don’t believe me, check out this statement from Reid himself.
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at email@example.com.