The GOP's war over America's debt ceiling is not about America's debt, it's about President Obama. The debt ceiling debate can't be separated from the GOP's never-ending hunt for any issue that can taint, embarrass, and ultimately weaken the Obama presidency. The GOP's goal is as it has always been: to make Obama a one-term president. The issue of whether America can pay its bills or not, or reneges on its financial obligations, which would be the catastrophe that would result from failing to raise the ceiling, is secondary to the GOP's cynical political ploy.
The proof is how the debt ceiling jumped to center stage in political debate and the public's awareness of it. The debt ceiling was an absolute non-issue during George W. Bush White House tenure. It was raised ten times in those years with barely a peep that the U.S. was in mortal danger of a fiscal crash and burn under its great weight of debt. This debt was incurred almost exclusively by Bush's two wildly costly and wasteful wars, his two behemoth tax cut giveaways to the rich, a relentless gut of regulations that made banks' and corporations' tax liability fall to historic low levels, and then capped by a taxpayer giveaway to Wall Street banks and financial houses. The debt that would be hiked to near astronomical proportions if Congress ever approved the House GOP's budget plan, drafted by Rep. Paul Ryan, which would add $6 trillion in to the national debt over a decade. Strangely, there's no debt ceiling squawk from the GOP on this horrific prospect.
But the GOP didn't acquiesce in turning the debt into a non-issue solely to appease a GOP president. Congress jumped the debt ceiling 64 times since 1962 before Bush took office for Democratic and Republican presidents alike. The ceiling was raised even in election years without any public fanfare.
But when polls showed that a majority of Americans were concerned about mounting debt, and that a sizable number of Americans wanted to rein in spending, the debt ceiling instantly became a fresh weapon for the GOP to barrage Obama. They calculate they can score three political pluses on the cheap. They can further tar Obama and the Democrats as reckless spendthrifts that want to run the country and the economy into the ground. They can wrap themselves even more snugly in the cloak of the defenders of fiscal prudence and responsibility with the solemn mission of guarding the nation's taxpayer's purse. They can drive a wedge between Obama and Congressional Democrats by forcing him to make concessions for a budget deal that will draw howls from Democrats. The concessions are, of course, putting the Democrats' two sacred cow programs, Medicare and Social Security, on the chopping block.
The GOP ploy played out to predictable perfection. The instant word leaked out that Obama had offered to make a tweak in the cost of living formula for Social Security and raise the age limit on Medicare recipients; a legion of congressional Democrats screamed betrayal and warned that any such deal on the two vital programs would have damaging consequences for Democrats in 2012. They are right. That was the whole point of the GOP forcing Obama to take the drastic steps of offering up Social Security and Medicare as bargaining chips to put him at odds with other Democrats and cause jitters among the Democratic voter base.
Democratic House Minority Leader Steny Hoyer glimpsed that this was indeed a calculated maneuver by the GOP and openly groused that the GOP could politicize the debt ceiling debate. But Hoyer was being far too cautious and generous in saying "could" about the ploy. The only way to make any sense out of the GOP's waging a World War II proportion battle out of something that had been as pro forma as the changing seasons for a half century was politics. The GOP leaders will eventually approve a deal on the budget and that will include raising the debt ceiling for the 75th time. But the GOP won't cut the deal without one more go at scoring a couple more political brownie points at Obama's expense.
They'll loudly proclaim that by waging the fight over the ceiling they thwarted the Democrats from continuing to bloat spending, held the line against any tax increases, and that this in effect prevented retarding the dubious recovery. And if in the process they've managed to sow enough ill will and division among Democrats then this is all the better in improving the prospects of whatever GOP presidential hopeful eventually emerges from the pack to challenge Obama.
President Obama almost certainly had the GOP's cynical scenario in mind when he blasted "professional politicians" for holding the government hostage while they jockey for partisan political gain. This shot at the GOP will fall on deaf ears precisely because the debt ceiling fight was never about debt but about Obama.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is host of the weekly Hutchinson Report Newsmaker Hour on KTYM Radio Los Angeles streamed on ktym.com podcast on blogtalkradio.com and internet TV broadcast on thehutchinsonreportnews.com.