The Chessmaster Cometh?

Die-hard supporters of Mr. Obama will happily tell you, in the midst of this deranged debate over the debt ceiling, that the president is playing some form of pan-dimensional chess against a pack of checkers-playing Republicans. The fact that they said the same thing when Obama chose to keep the Bush-era tax cuts for rich people, when he doubled down on Afghanistan, failed to close the Guantanamo prison, and buckled like a punch-drunk fighter during the health care debate, does not seem to matter. They're saying it again, and who knows?

Maybe it's even true this time.

After all, the Republicans in the House and Senate appear to be in a state of total disarray. Mr. Obama's offer to put Social Security and Medicare on the chopping block earned howls of rage from progressives and the left – myself most definitely included – but then a funny thing happened. Speaker Boehner, with his rival Rep. Cantor nipping at his heels, looked Obama's offer in the eye and suddenly walked away. And to top it all off, after weeks of demagoguery over raising the debt limit, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell abruptly coughed up a proposal to pass the debt-limit extension free of strings:

The U.S. political world reacted with confusion on Tuesday to a ground-shifting proposal by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).

The plan itself was clear enough: Republicans don't really have the stomach to allow the country to default on its debt in pursuit of their decades-long goals of slashing deeply into popular entitlement programs. But instead of admitting that and extending President Obama's borrowing authority through the 2012 election, McConnell proposed a Rube Goldberg-esque scheme by which Obama, by accepting some public embarrassment for himself and his party, could raise the debt limit on his own, with no policy strings attached.

No spending cuts for Republicans. No tax increases for Democrats. In effect, a clean debt-limit hike with all attendant political consequences, such as there are any, falling on the latter.

In short, and if I'm reading this correctly, the GOP attempted to hijack the country with a threat of imminent economic calamity in order to kill off Social Security and Medicare, two highly popular programs they couldn't touch under normal circumstances, though they have dreamed of doing so for decades. Mr. Obama, for his part, dangled the opportunity to do just that before Boehner and his crew, with the proviso that $1 trillion worth of new revenue would also be arranged by way of closing a number of tax loopholes favored by the wealthiest Americans.

Despite being handed exactly what he wanted, Boehner cut and run, Cantor continued to dither around the edges, and then McConnell came in with a proposal that Obama asked for in the first place months ago: screw all this extra crap, and let's just raise the debt limit.

I do love good theater.

Mr. McConnell, for his part, has suddenly become Public Enemy No. 1 in the eyes of his party's base, and in the eyes of the Tea Party freshmen in the House. That is part of the magic of this whole mess: they really did think the GOP leadership, with the business interests that line their pockets breathing down their necks, were actually going to let the debt-limit deadline pass without an extension. The leadership got the base all hot and bothered over a showdown that might finally eliminate that pesky social safety net, and out of a clear blue sky, Mr. Obama offered them the chance to do just that…and they blinked.

Truthout supports itself through tax-deductible donations from our readers. Please make a contribution today to keep truly independent journalism strong! Donate now and your contribution will be doubled by a charitable foundation. Click here to contribute.

And the natives are suddenly restless. Erick Erickson of howled that it was time to burn McConnell in effigy (a line he later edited), and offered another suggestion to boot: “So fearful of being blamed for a default, McConnell is proposing a compromise that lets Barack Obama raise the debt ceiling without making any spending cuts at all. Consider sending McConnell a weasel as testament to his treachery.” The Heritage Foundation attacked McConnell's suggestion as a “serious walk back,” and the ever-reliable Michelle Malkin exclaimed, “We exasperated grass-roots conservatives don't call the GOP the Stupid Party for nothing. Three letters come to mind: W.T.F.?!!”

When Mr. Obama offered up Social Security and Medicare to Boehner and the Republicans last week, the left was understandably astonished and horrified. But when the GOP leadership looked that gift horse in the mouth and walked away, it cracked open another fault line within the ranks of Republicans that may shake, rattle and roll all the way through the primaries and beyond. I was terrified the president might give away the store, but the GOP base was absolutely positive their leadership wanted what they wanted: an end to Social Security and Medicare, the evisceration of the federal government, and the shaming of a president they loathe and despise.

Now, it seems Mr. Obama was in fact playing a pan-dimensional game of chess, and the GOP just got put in checkmate, to the high dudgeon of their core supporters. For my part, I'm more than willing to admit I underestimated the tactics of Mr. Obama on this issue, but when Social Security and Medicare are threatened, a strident response is absolutely required. The situation is far from resolved, however, and I'm not yet ready to believe those two all-important programs are out of the woods yet.

I know one thing for sure: I'm glad I'm not answering the phones in the offices of the GOP's congressional leadership today. The squeals of outrage coming down those lines must be peeling the paint.