First of all, I don’t necessarily think that Mitch McConnell’s waving of the white flag of surrender in the debt limit fight will mean that the debt limit will now be raised without spending cuts of any kind. First of all, McConnell’s the Senate Minority Leader, not the House Speaker. Second, I remember during the Bush tax cut debate when John Boehner made the epic mistake of saying on the record that he would let the high-end tax cuts expire if he had to. While I thought that would completely change the tenor of the debate, it didn’t, and eventually all the tax cuts got extended. So it’s not yet known how this will play out, though certainly Republicans are retreating. And I would add that I hope everyone leaps at the McConnell plan and quickly approves a bill to pay the nation’s bills without attaching a bunch of unrelated items to it.

But does this necessarily mean that Barack Obama will somehow trim his sails and never again seek a grand bargain, whether with this leverage or some other point of leverage? I don’t think so. The President has been committed to fiscal conservatism from the moment he came into office. I think he’s made that pretty clear during this debate. Sure, he wants a bipartisan victory, with a few taxes sprinkled in with the cuts, but he sincerely believes that the country would be better off if the deficit were in a “sustainable” position (his phrase). The fact that the deficit would be in that position simply by letting the Bush tax cuts expire and creating jobs isn’t his idea of a bargain. That’s not what he wants.

Now that the door has been opened a crack – by a Democratic President – for these kinds of radical changes to the safety net, it’s not likely to be closed. It will be picked up by the next Republican President, and he or she will claim bipartisan support for the changes. It might be tried again by this President. Maybe as soon as in the 2012 budget negotiations, which will be just as much of a knock-down, drag-out affair.

As he says, everything becomes much more understandable if you realize that Obama never wanted a clean debt ceiling bill — if he had, he would have fought for one. What he wanted was the pressure of pending default to allegedly make “both sides give up their sacred cows.” It would appear from the proposals that have been floated that he is less concerned with the GOP’s herd than the Democrats’. This makes sense since he evidently sees this debt ceiling as a way to enact the Deficit Commission framework which called for many more liberal cows to be slaughtered.

Would the President deny himself the authority to extend the debt limit on his own, because he wants to do “big things”? Because the McConnell plan is in tranches, it may violate the President’s stated disapproval for anything that forces him to go back to Congress before the 2012 elections. But this would only set up a series of futile votes on that front. So I don’t know.

What I do know is this. Cutting Social Security benefits, raising the Medicare eligibility age, cutting federal support for Medicaid; all of these have been put on the table. And they will be very hard to get off.

David Dayen

David Dayen

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