Remember when it was politically safe to say this? “The plan that has been submitted to Congress” by the president “is flawed, but the effort to protect the American economy must not fail. This is a time to rise above politics for the good of the country. We cannot risk an economic catastrophe.”
That was the joint statement issued in October 2008, when Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and then-Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., threw their support behind President Bush’s Troubled Asset Relief Program, fearing that to do otherwise would mean a global economic meltdown. A month before Election Day, the two rivals tore up their campaign schedules and flew to Washington to support then-President George W. Bush's plan for averting financial catastrophe.
Almost three years later, the clock is once again ticking down to economic crisis—but the political calculus has changed. While President Obama is still betting on bipartisanship and compromise as his best ticket to reelection, his GOP rivals are making an opposite bet. A number of the party's presidential candidates say they oppose raising the debt ceiling under any circumstances. The field has veered so far to the right that conservative has become the new moderate.
One measure: So far, only former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman has dared to issue an uneqivocal endorsement of the cuts-for-debt-ceiling-hike proposal offered by House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
"The plan proposed by Speaker Boehner and House Republican leadership is a good first step to deal with our national debt and is in line with the principles I have laid out since the beginning of this debate: cuts commensurate with any increase in the debt ceiling, tangible steps toward a balanced budget amendment, and no tax increases,” Huntsman said in a statement Monday.
Presumed frontrunner Mitt Romney hinted at support for Boehner’s plan on Monday in a tweet: “An historic failure of leadership from @BarackObama, not even @SenatorReid is still talking about tax increases.” On Monday, his campaign said the candidate is reviewing the Boehner plan and that Romney supports Boehner’s resistance to including tax increases in any final deal.
The Republican candidates aren’t just attacking a Democratic president’s negotiating position: In spurning Boehner's plan, they’ve also been dissing the top-ranking congressional leader of their own party.
Notably, the only two candidates who will vote on any eventual deal—Reps. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., and Ron Paul, R-Texas—have vowed to vote against raising the debt ceiling no matter what the bargain. That's also the position of businessman Herman Cain. Late in the day, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty joined the club of those wielding a veto pen against Boehner. "I am for the plan that will cut spending, cap it and pass a balanced budget amendment, but unfortunately this latest bill does not do that," Pawlenty said of the speaker's legislation.
For some candidates, weighing in on the debt talks has required a rhetorical sleight of hand: opposing default and opposing a deal at the same time.
Obama “has presided over the largest and most irresponsible run up of debt in our nation's history, and he now threatens to preside over the first default in U.S. history,” Tim Pawlenty said in a statement Tuesday. Pawlenty is opposed to raising the debt ceiling but didn't offer an alternative proposal for avoiding default.
Timing may have something to do with the GOP candidates' hardline positions, some experts suggest. Saying no to raising the debt ceiling altogether is “the safest route” for Republican candidates “looking for conservative votes in Republican primaries,” said former Rep. Tom Reynolds, R-N.Y. Just saying no is “safer than figuring out a solution.” He noted that as candidates, the presidential hopefuls haven’t had to balance realities on the Hill.
The candidates are “moving to the right and taking these positions because it’s primary season,” said American University professor James Thurber in an e-mail. “The statements will come back to hurt them. They must move to the middle if they become the nominee.”
Most campaigns make that shift after the nomination, but that doesn’t help the two parties reach a debt ceiling agreement now. With the party's most conservative candidates opposing a deal under any circumstances and more mainstream candidates reluctant to support specific Republican plans, the Republican presidential contenders aren’t giving their colleagues in Congress political cover for the vote they’ll eventually have to take.
In the Republican presidential primary as in House Republican caucus, it has become politically toxic to support compromise.