The Republican Dilemma: Be Right or Be President

August 2 is debt ceiling day. Mitch McConnel proposes compromise on the deficit now to improve the chances for unseating Obama in 2012.

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Amiel Ungar, | updated: 07:17

Mitch McConnel
Mitch McConnel


It was Henry Clay who was responsible for the quote "I'd rather be right than be president." The great statesman from Kentucky never became president although he tried on numerous occasions.  He definitely took a stand, sometimes an unpopular one, on major issues such as the Mexican war which he opposed.

Simultaneously, Clay was also known as "the great compromiser" who managed to delay the Civil War by patching together compromises between the free and slave states that held up till the 1860 elections.

Currently it is another Kentucky legislator, Senator Mitch McConnell, who is trying to patch a temporary compromise in what is currently the most divisive issue in the United States – the size of the federal government and the breadth of the services that it provides. However Mitch McConnell's slogan appears to be "I'd rather be wrong then let Barack Obama continue as president for another four years."

McConnell has been behind Plan B in the debt ceiling talks in the United States as the clock ticks down to August 2, the day that without a debt ceiling raise, the United States will default and government will go into lockdown.

Up to now, the Republican-controlled House and the Obama administration have engaged in driving their cars to an inevitable crash unless one side blinks and swerves. Each side is trying to convince the other that the liberal or conservative base will not allow them to swerve.

The Republican majority in the House of Representatives is insisting on commensurate spending cuts for any rise in the debt ceiling while the Obama Administration is insisting on tax hikes as a major contributor to cutting the budget deficits, anathema to the Republicans.

The Republican freshman class, many of whom were elected on pledges to rein in government spending, fears that if it reaches a compromise, it will have committed a breach of faith with voters who would react in the next election. They would rather be right and even Churchillian in their opposition to Obama in the expectation that they will be ultimately vindicated.

The danger of this policy is that while they may be right, it will not get a Republican elected president in 2012. Since presidents, including George W. Bush, have traditionally succeeded in passing increases to the debt ceiling, public opinion polls predict that Americans by a large margin will blame the Republicans for the default (and the extra interest hikes that will come with it).

This will almost ensure the reelection of Barack Obama. Kimberly Strassel in the Wall Street Journal ably summed up the logic of the situation:

Option No. 3 is for the GOP to go to the brink and share the turmoil or shutdown that follows default. Ask Newt Gingrich how that worked out for him in 1995 [voters blamed the Republican controlled congress rather than Bill Clinton who was reelected in 1996 A.U]. Mr. Obama today owns a failing economy. Republicans are begging for joint custody. Come turmoil in August, the president will lay every unemployment uptick, every poor economic statistic, at the foot of whatever panic or pain came out of the debt-ceiling mess—and the Republicans who helped push it to that point.

In the game of chicken both players are eliminated in the event of a crash. In American political chicken both parties will survive and the winner will be declared by the spectators who have to judge which party acted more irresponsibly.

McConnell's proposal is to provide the Barack Obama with enough deficit oxygen to last him through his first term. He will receive three installments of the oxygen by coming before Congress each time to ask for more money. He will then face the voters with the deficit albatross around his neck.

In the two years following the Obama victory, when the Democrats controlled Congress and the Republicans were a pitiful minority in the Senate, McConnell as Senate Minority Leader, achieved wonders in waging guerrilla warfare against the Obama legislative program.

He was a modern day Fabius, the Roman general who wore down Hannibal and avoided a frontal battle if he felt that it would lead to disaster. These tactics could appear cowardly but they made sense.

If the Republicans controlled the Senate and the White House it would be opportune for them to wage the frontal battle now. Reality is different and they have to convince their voters that a tactical retreat in the deficit battle is necessary for winning the set piece battle of 2012.