John Boehner wants another debt-ceiling fight this summer. But is he just blowing smoke? In the Times this morning, Tim Geithner says that his Treasury Department "has enough 'tools' to keep the government afloat into early next year. That should push a debt-ceiling showdown well past the November election."
So maybe this is all theatrics. It's highly cynical on Boehner's part, considering that he and his caucus were more responsible than the White House for the failure last summer to secure a long-term deal. But it isn't stupid, and Democrats better watch themselves.
Boehner needs to placate the right wing of his caucus, yes. But he also knows that polls always show that swing voters think more like Republicans than like Democrats when it comes to budget, spending, and size-of-government issues. So if there's a fight this summer that casts Republicans as trying to rein in spending and "live within our means" and casts Obama and the Democrats as unwilling to "make the hard choices" (I'm spitting up my breakfast typing these awful cliches), there's just no question that that is a fight that helps both Mitt Romney and (maye even more so) GOP congressional candidates.
So the Democrats would do well to get out in front of this. But their options are pretty limited. Their play boils down to trying to seem reasonable and hoping that eventually, the Republicans will reveal themselves as unreasonable, which they will eventually, and then hoping that people blame the Republicans for the debacle more than they blame the Democrats. This is roughly what happened last time, but it was ugly and painful for all involved. Or, they can come up with a game-changer of some kind. My choice?
Obama should put a big and specific tax-reform proposal on the table. It should raise rates on the super-rich, lower them a hair on the middle class, lower corporate rates, and be specific about the loopholes it will close. Republicans will oppose it of course, and they'll look a) like children, and b) like they're protecting the rich. And both will be true.
Without a big move of that sort, the Republicans are setting the agenda. Obama never looked weaker than during the debt fiasco. I mean literally. At some of those hastily called press conferences, he looked like a little third-grader the sixth-graders had been mean to. As I wrote ad nauseum at the time, it was hideous of the administration to accept the idea that raising the debt ceiling should be tied to anything in the first place. This summer, we might see some ugly consequences of them accepting that precedent.
I just hope David Plouffe and his crew remember the right lessons from last summer. They thought that being "reasonable" would win over swing voters. But polls showed that those voters just thought Obama looked pathetic; let himself get pushed around. So the moral of the story: Whatever they do this time, make some kind of strong and unexpected play.