Is Mitch McConnell’s Debt Ceiling Gambit Really That Clever?

In the conventional telling, the way Mitch McConnell’s buck-shifting debt ceiling proposal works is this. At three different phases, Barack Obama will need to unilaterally state his desire to increase the debt ceiling. Then Congress will get to weigh in and vote for a resolution to overrule his lifting of the ceiling. Then Obama will veto the resolution. Then Congress will vote again, and congressional Democrats will have to vote to uphold the veto to prevent the country from defaulting. Thus the GOP gets to keep whining about Obama and the debt, and congressional Democrats “have to” take the tough vote to lift the ceiling on six separate occasions.

But is this right? As far as I can see, congressional Democrats don’t “have to” do anything under this scenario. Absolutely 100 percent of Washington, DC understands that this is pure political gamesmanship, after all. So why can’t Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and the rest of the crew just walk over to Good Stuff Eatery with whichever members of the press care to join them for some burgers? After all, it’s just political theater. We don’t want to waste our time. Burgers are delicious. And now the ball’s back in the GOP’s court. They can either take an affirmative vote that would override Obama’s veto and push the country into financial apocalypse, or else they can, you know, not do that and life will go on. The implicit threat in the McConnell gambit is absurd. “We’re going to make you stop us from shooting ourselves in the head and then we’ll complain that you did it.” All Democrats would need to do is credibly commit to not stepping in — by, say, absenting themselves from the Capitol — and the GOP would be stuck.