Obama scuttles plan to increase debt ceiling

After a good deal of confusion last night – including some reports that he had agreed to the plan – President Obama rejected Republican proposals for a six-month increase in the debt ceiling.  It’ll be fun watching the talking heads prattle about “Republican intransigence” after that.

Intransigence is clearly the name of the President’s game, and he’s counting heavily on a media that will refuse to call him on it, no matter how many deals he refuses, no matter how many bills to fund the government Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid kills.  The limits to Democrat obstructionism were discovered when the Senate “quietly” passed a bill to fund death benefits for the families of fallen veterans, as NBC News put it.  No matter what you hear Reid or Obama say about their all-or-nothing demands, they’re not going to risk the public-relations hit from vetoing that, just like some of Obama’s shock-trooper Shutdown Theater antics – which he and the Park Service supposedly had no choice but to execute – have been quietly reversed in the face of mounting public outrage.  There’s plenty of dismaying news about the public’s attitude toward the shutdown crisis, but it’s really quite encouraging to think there are still a few things Reid and Obama don’t think they can get away with.

It’s illuminating to read that NBC report about the death benefits bill and hear Reid and Obama repeatedly attempt to dismiss the problem they created as trivial, because a private non-profit organization called the Fisher House stepped up and offered to take care of veterans’ families:

After the president said Wednesday that he???d sign on to the Fisher House plan, the Senate did not immediately take up the House-passed bill.

But early Thursday afternoon, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, came to the Senate floor to ask that the upper chamber approve the House-passed measure anyway.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid responded that the move would be ???moot??? because of the Fisher House program, and the vote would be only ???for show.???

???The death benefit issue has been resolved,??? he said. ???The Department of Defense stepped forward and took care of everything, and so this issue is largely moot.???

Great Scott!  Mark your calendars, folks: Harry Reid just endorsed privatization.  Republicans should take that ball and run with it.  If a private organization can step forward and take over veterans’ death benefits – a duty the Democrats’ beloved super-State should be handling as one of its core responsibilities – and receive the blessings of Democrats, there’s really no limit to what could and should be privatized, to bring this irresponsible government down to size.

Curiously, private individuals and companies have been stepping forward with offers to take charge of the parks and monuments Obama is busy barricading, but their offers have been rebuked.  Obama’s even dispatching squadrons to shut down profitable businesses that attempt to conduct operations in defiance of his orders.  We should firmly establish the contours of this new Democrat embrace of privatization – exactly what else does it apply to, beyond taking care of veterans and their families when Reid and Obama shut the government down?

Fox News has details of the debt ceiling increase President Obama just walked away from:

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and others have endorsed a proposal that would fund the government for six months and repeal ObamaCare’s medical device tax and give federal agencies greater flexibility to manage across-the-board spending cuts caused by sequestration.

The sticking point appears to be whether to end the partial government shutdown as part of any deal to lift the debt ceiling.

The original House GOP plan called for a six-week extension of the debt ceiling with no strings attached — but would not resolve the partial government shutdown. Instead, Republicans wanted Obama and Democrats to make a “real commitment” to negotiate over the partial government shutdown and a longer-term debt-ceiling hike as the next step.

Fox News is told that Obama pushed back on that plan. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., said Obama wants to make sure the partial government shutdown is also lifted as part of any debt-ceiling agreement.

Nothing mysterious about that – Obama’s endgame is shattering the Republican Party for years to come by forcing total capitulation.  This would also mark the formal end of the Constitutional separation of powers, which has been looking increasingly frail over the past five years, and just needs a little push down the stairs to be rid of it.  The media police will rule its death a suicide.

Democrats have been sticking together better than Republicans, since they’ve got the White House bully pulpit, plus a simple and clear objective – demand everything and keep ObamaCare alive.  They could not care less how badly it’s failing.  They view that as a public-relations problem, not a failure of government that its elected representatives and executive branch have a responsibility to deal with.

In this they are, ironically, assisted by the fact that critics of ObamaCare were right all along about the relatively modest true number of hard-core uninsured.  Fanciful Democrat claims of 50 million or more were always propaganda.  This should cause some embarrassment, because the system Obama created (at fabulous expense) was obviously designed to handle a far smaller number of people, a clear sign that the Administration never believed its own rhetoric, mixed with the money-no-object incompetence we’ve come to expect from the Total State.

But that sort of embarrassment is something the media can be trusted to manage for them.  Meanwhile, the actual number of people trying and failing to access ObamaCare is relatively small – there are reports today of zero successful applicants in Vice President Joe Biden’s home state of Delaware – so the astounding tales of system meltdown remain something of a distant horror for many people.  We already knew the electorate had fairly low expectations from the government it pays so much to empower, didn’t we?

People are cranky about the shutdown, even though it’s another spectator event for most of them.  Yesterday the Christian Science Monitor published a roundup of how the effects of the shutdown “are starting to seep into the lives and bank accounts of ordinary Americans.”  The total scope of everything listed in the article couldn’t encompass more than a modest percentage of the American population so far.  This is not to diminish the hardship suffered by those who are affected, such as the employees of the businesses Obama has barricaded, but for the bulk of the population beyond the Beltway, the shutdown is still mostly something they read about in the newspapers.

Which means it’s a media event, and we all know which side they’re on.  The system itself puts Republicans at a disadvantage, because there is no equivalent to the White House bully pulpit, no single congressional figure whose stature compares to even an unpopular President.  (If you’re young and wondering how the Democrats managed during Republican administrations, the media tends to attack Republican presidents and hold them responsible for everything that happens on their watch.  Do not for a moment imagine that George Bush could have gotten away with something like Shutdown Theater – the victims would be media celebrities by now.  Also, the media was willing to elevate certain congressional Democrats to near-presidential stature, such as Senator Ted Kennedy.)

We’re left with a battleground in which the Democrats pay no price for intransigence.  Harry Reid’s Cloak of Invisibility is still largely intact, with CNN not even terribly eager to discuss his insinuation that one of their female reporters was stupid for asking him a tough question.  Reid got caught on a hot mike Wednesday hissing “I’m on your side, don’t screw it up, okay?” at DC mayor Vincent Gray when the latter begged him to release funds to run the District of Columbia.  The media’s willingness to let such things pass without comment, much less “narrative” construction, is a tremendous asset to the Democrats.

It’s also helpful that the Democrats can get away with incendiary rhetoric.  Obama’s campaign manager, David Plouffe, ratcheted up the standard fare about terrorists, hostage-takers, and guns held to heads by accusing Republicans of “economic treason” on Thursday.  Any Republican who said something like that would be instantly destroyed; if it was a campaign operative, his boss would pay the price, and might not even be able to escape the outrage brigades by immediately firing the outspoken employee.  Besides, if Plouffe wants to talk about “economic treason,” let’s talk about the President who has been deliberately trying to crash the stock market to gain more shutdown leverage.

Republicans, on the other hand, receive very little credit for passing bills to fund the government, or making offers to raise the debt ceiling.  Indeed, these offers cost them internal political capital, as the base worries about signs of capitulation, and existing fissures between parts of the Republican coalition widen.  Some of the people telling pollsters they’re unhappy with the GOP are Republicans angry with, or disappointed by, a different wing of the Republican Party.  The party leadership hasn’t done a very good job of presenting a unified message.

Also, no matter how underwhelming or outrageous the performance of the government might be, a large number of people take shutdowns as signs of unacceptable dysfunction, and grow angry at politicians for “falling down on the job.”  At such times, it is very helpful to be the party strongly associated with Big Government, able to look the public in the eye and express your very sincere desire to get Leviathan back on his feet.

Perhaps that’s going to change, as there seems to be a good bit of steam building behind proposals to delay ObamaCare by a year, until the bugs are ironed out of the system.  This will strike many non-ideological Americans as a reasonable proposal.  Unfortunately, it’s politically unacceptable to the President, who doesn’t want to concede that ObamaCare’s launch was a disaster, especially not when he was telling everyone the opposite for the past few months.  He can’t grant Americans the kind of waiver he gave to business interests by delaying the employer mandate, because without the threat of the individual mandate, enrollment figures for ObamaCare would become even more pitiful.  He doesn’t want to hand his opponents a political victory.  And he certainly doesn’t want to give ObamaCare’s critics a year to work up the case for full repeal.

Columnist Charles Krauthammer took some flack for agreeing to be part of an off-the-record briefing with the President, but his new column is sternly critical of Obama, castigates the media for “reticence” in discussing White House stubborness, predicts that “as the debt ceiling approaches, the initiative will increasingly swing to House Speaker John Boehner,” and endorses House Budget chair Paul Ryan’s plan to shift the debate into structural and entitlement reform:

After all, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other health programs ??? plus interest payments ??? already claim more than half the federal budget. And they are poised to explode, eating up (estimates the Congressional Budget Office) 97 percent of projected revenue in one generation.

Raising (and indexing) the retirement age while changing the inflation measure for entitlements would themselves be major achievements. So would agreeing on a framework for genuine tax reform, although that still would remain speculative. Democrats could be offered relief on the sequester ??? which everyone agrees needs restructuring anyway, since it cuts agency budgets indiscriminately, often illogically, by formula.

It???s win-win. A serious attack on the deficit ??? good. Refiguring sequestration to restore some defense spending and some logic to discretionary spending ??? also good. Forcing the president off Mount Olympus ??? priceless.

There is much to recommend that strategy, but it seems somewhat at variance with the thinking behind the debt ceiling extension Obama just rejected, which would have moved the issues Krauthammer describes back down the calendar until the shutdown and ObamaCare issues can be resolved.  Maybe he’s tacitly accepting the ObamaCare fight as a lost cause, or maybe he thinks distaste for the program will grow as more people have direct experience with it – a process that won’t really get underway in earnest until the computer glitches are worked out.  It really doesn’t seem like the sort of disaster a savvy opposition party would let the President off the hook for, or the kind of wasteful debacle a fiscally responsible party would inflict on the American people.

Update: According to an Associated Press update this afternoon, that debt ceiling plan might only be mostly dead, as measured on the “Princess Bride” scale of deadness.  Actually, it might be mutating into some sort of “grand bargain,” along the lines of what Rep. Ryan proposed in his op-ed yesterday, along with some sort of as-yet unspecified changes to ObamaCare:

The House Republicans’ plan was outlined Thursday night in a White House meeting that included senior aides to Obama as well as to House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, several hours after Obama met with top Republicans.

Without confirming any of the details under discussion, Cantor said, “We’re waiting to hear” from administration officials.

In addition to ending the shutdown and increasing the debt limit, under the proposal Congress and the White House would explore ways to ease across-the-board federal budget cuts that began taking effect a year ago, and replace at least part of them with benefit-program curbs that have been included in recent presidential budgets. Officials who described the approach did so on condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to discuss private conversations.

With the weekend approaching, and the deadline for raising the debt limit five days away, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said it was time to “put this hysterical talk of default behind us and instead start talking about finding solutions to the problems.”

Oh, I don’t know, Senator McConnell.  I think we might still have a few more days of hysterical talk ahead of us.