Republicans should be happy with the debt-ceiling deal President Obama reached with Congressional leaders on Sunday night. They successfully took a routine function of government—allowing the Treasury to borrow money to pay for spending commitments Congress has already made—and used it as a cudgel to beat significant spending cuts with no tax increases out of a Democratic president and Senate.
But they aren’t. The party’s presidential candidates, who are an excellent weathervane for measuring the mood of the primary electorate, are almost unanimous in their opposition to the deal, which would shave at least $2.1 trillion off the debt, entirely from cuts to discretionary (including military) spending. House Republicans, despite their staunchly right-wing politics, are stuck with the responsibility of governing and preventing a catastrophic debt default. So they are rallying around Speaker John Boehner and the deal.
But GOP presidential candidates, most of whom do not currently hold office, are free to take the maximalist position. Front-runner Mitt Romney, who is supposed to represent the moderate, responsible wing of the presidential field, has said the deal should be voted down. He issued the following statement Monday morning:
“As president, my plan would have produced a budget that was cut, capped and balanced—not one that opens the door to higher taxes and puts defense cuts on the table. President Obama’s leadership failure has pushed the economy to the brink at the eleventh hour and 59th minute. While I appreciate the extraordinarily difficult situation President Obama’s lack of leadership has placed Republican Members of Congress in, I personally cannot support this deal.”
Romney, as is his wont, tries to appeal to extremist conservatives while leaving himself some wiggle room. He seeks to soothe the egos of House Republicans who may be stung by his implication that they are sell-outs if they vote for the deal, by saying it’s really Obama’s fault that they have to vote for it.
Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty also opposes the deal. His spokesman Alex Conant sent The Nation a statement:
“This deal is nothing to celebrate. Only in Washington would the political class think it’s a victory when the government narrowly avoids default, agrees to go further into debt, and does little to reform a spending system that cannot be sustained by our children and grandchildren.”
While many of the second-tier candidates have not issued statements, it’s probably safe to assume they will take the same tack, since they are all positioned to the right of Romney and Pawlenty, In fact, conservative heroine Representative Michele Bachmann (R-MN) promised long ago that she will not vote for any debt-ceiling deal that does include repeal of healthcare reform, so it’s obvious she will be dead set against this agreement.
The only Republican presidential aspirant to support the deal thus far is former Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, who is angling for the support of independents and political pundits by striking a more reasonable tone. Huntsman endorses the deal, saying:
“While this framework is not my preferred outcome, it is a positive step toward cutting our nation’s crippling debt. Because the legislation promises cuts commensurate with the debt ceiling increase, forces a vote on a much-needed federal balanced budget amendment and provides the only avenue to avoid default, I encourage members of Congress to vote for this legislation.”
Still, Huntsman is hardly adopting a moderate stance on the larger budgetary questions. The Balanced Budget Amendment he speaks so fondly of is, as Ezra Klein has explained, a completely impractical and radical proposal that would turn the federal government into an ungovernable mess like the state of California. (Conservative economist Bruce Bartlett calls it “mind-boggling in its insanity.”)
It’s also important to remember that this deal is not yet done, even if it passes. A special Congressional committee will be asked to come up with $1.5 trillion in further deficit savings. What those savings will consist of is going to be hotly contested in the months to come. Huntsman, the supposed moderate in the GOP field, demands that they include no additional new revenues, saying, “Going forward, I will aggressively advocate for a plan from the congressional committee that includes real cuts, entitlement reform, and revenue-neutral tax reforms—without any tax hikes.”
In short, the Republican presidential contenders can be counted on to push their party and the public debate even further to the extreme right between now and November 2012.