At this stage of the game, it appears that we more or less know what the agreement deal to raise the debt ceiling will be: it’s going to be the Boehner plan, or possibly something occupying the very small space between the Boehner and Reid plans. In other words, a significant amount of discretionary spending cuts, some small trimming of mandatory spending, no entitlement reform, and no tax hikes.
Whether this result represents a victory for Republicans and conservatives, I think, rests on whether real reforms of entitlements were ever within reach. It is possible that they were not, in which case decreasing discretionary spending and saving hundreds of billions in interest payments could be counted as a negotiating victory, given that Democrats control two-thirds of the government. Of course it represents a compromise, and isn’t anywhere near Republicans’ initial terms. That’s how bargaining works. The conservatives outraged at merely the prospect of the Boehner deal should realize, even if they’re right to be outraged, that the compromise would have been much further to the left if the Tea Party-influenced members of Congress hadn’t made such huge opening demands.
But what if something like the Coburn-Lieberman Medicare reform was attainable? That alone, without any accompanying discretionary spending cuts or spending caps, would have done far more to address the looming debt problem than the Boehner plan. Theoretically, it’s a plan that could attract bipartisan support and that Obama would sign, although it’s just as likely that fiscal-denialist Democrats would have blocked anything that could be construed as a cut.
Enacting Medicare reform or even merely trimming Medicare and Social Security spending would not only have addressed the real driver of the debt, it also would have prevented the Democrats from using the Paul Ryan plan as a weapon against the Republicans in the 2012 elections. With the Boehner plan instead, that issue will be resurrected again during the election year, as a fresh reminder to voters that all Republicans voted to restructure Medicare.