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Charles Krauthammer: Debt-ceiling fight should shift to entitlements

  • Washington Post
  • Published Saturday, Oct. 12, 2013, at 12 a.m.

For all his protestations about protecting the full faith and credit of the United States, the president’s real intent during the government shutdown is to score a humiliating victory over the GOP.

So far, so good. Republicans have fallen to 28 percent approval, the lowest level ever for either party in 21 years of polling and a staggering 10-point drop in the past month. Democrats have also declined, but only 4 percentage points and, in the end, partisan politics is a zero-sum game. If you lose less than the other guy, you win – because every seat in Congress will be allocated to one party or the other, no matter how disgusted the country is with both.

But the administration also has overplayed a good hand, with punitive shutdowns – such as of the World War II Memorial – clearly intended to be blamed on the GOP.

People aren’t that stupid. They know a gratuitous abuse of government (lockout) power when they see it. Moreover, Republicans have been passing partial funding bills for such things as national monuments and cancer research, forcing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and his Democratic Senate to kill them with a stone-cold heart.

President Obama said he wouldn’t negotiate on the debt ceiling as a matter of principle. But should Obama miscalculate the brinkmanship, he’ll become the first president to ever allow a default. Breaching the debt ceiling would indeed, as he claims, be an economic disaster, aborting an already historically anemic recovery. As president, he would take the blame. He can’t allow it.

That’s why, as the debt ceiling approaches, the initiative has increasingly swung to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. The real question is: What will Boehner do with it?

His answer has been peculiar: He simply wanted the president to sit down and negotiate.

Negotiate what? “There’s nothing on the table,” Boehner said on Tuesday. “There’s nothing off the table.”

Stranger still. You cannot negotiate if you don’t know what you want. The Republicans need to present a simple, broadly popular set of demands to attach to the debt ceiling. The president will deal. In his Tuesday press conference, he’d already abandoned his original ultimatum of “give me a long-term extension or I don’t budge.” Now it’s: “Give me an extension of any length and I’ll come to the table.”

On Thursday, Boehner took that exit ramp, offering Obama a six-week debt-ceiling extension during which negotiations would be conducted.

What, then, to ask for? Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., as usual, points the way with a suggestion that would turn the partial and imperfect success of the most recent debt-ceiling fight – the automatic spending cuts (“sequester”) that seriously reduced discretionary spending – into the larger success of curbing entitlements, which is where the real money is.

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 97 percent of revenues within 25 years.

Raising (and indexing) the retirement age while changing the inflation measure for entitlements would alone be major achievements. 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.

Charles Krauthammer writes for the Washington Post.

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