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This time with feeling: The GOP needs to do a retake on its debt limit rhetoric

Republican PartyBarack ObamaDemocratic PartyMitch McConnellRonald ReaganEric CantorWhite House

A lot of conservatives are having fun at President Obama's expense after his latest gaffe. In the midst of testy debt-limit negotiations last week, Mr. Obama told House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, "Don't call my bluff."

The first rule in bluffing is to keep it a secret that you're bluffing. So, technically speaking, that's like a con man saying, "Don't give any weight to the fact that I'm lying."

And while I do think President Obama is not telling the truth about a great number of things, conservatives should look closer to home if they want to criticize impolitic truth-telling.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has introduced a complicated plan that would truly call Mr. Obama's fundamental bluff: that the White House honestly favors a courageous "grand bargain" that would make serious and steep cuts to entitlements in exchange for "revenue" increases (i.e., tax hikes).

High among the problems with Senator McConnell's plan is how hard it is to explain. But basically, Republicans would give President Obama all of the responsibility for proposing specific spending cuts and for raising the debt ceiling three times up to $2.5 trillion over the next year. Mr. Obama would get his way unless a supermajority of Congress objected, so the GOP could vote against Mr. Obama without stopping him. Default would be averted without Republicans being forced to vote for tax hikes.

Conservatives are split on the idea. Personally I think it might be the least bad of the currently possible options.

But what's particularly frustrating is how Mr. McConnell is selling his proposal. In an interview with radio host Laura Ingraham, the senator explained his thinking: "If we go into default, (Mr. Obama) will say that Republicans are making the economy worse. ... The president will have the bully pulpit to blame the Republicans for all of this destruction," setting himself up for re-election.

"I refuse to help Barack Obama get re-elected by marching Republicans into a position where we have co-ownership of a bad economy," Senator McConnell added. "That's a very bad positioning going into an election."

Mr. McConnell is right. But he isn't a pundit. Why the hell is he reading his stage direction out loud? Last fall, he said that the "single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president." Most conservatives agree with him, because without a Republican president, you can't repeal ObamaCare or do the other things conservatives believe are necessary to set the country back on the right track. Democrats see things the same way, but from a liberal perspective.

But Democrats, for all their internecine squabbles, have the discipline to take the high road rhetorically.

Republicans have a habit of seeming like actors who first want to know their "motivation" and then read it instead of their lines.

In 1991, President George H.W. Bush explained that he wanted "to be positioned in that I could not possibly support David Duke because of the racism and because of the very recent statements that are very troubling in terms of bigotry and all of this." Positioned?

When Bob Dole, another former Senate leader, ran for president in 1996, he assured voters, "If that's what you want, I'll be another Ronald Reagan." He even launched a national debate on whether he should "go negative" against Bill Clinton. According to his own strategists, his plan was to "act presidential." Not to "be presidential" — just to act that way.

Politics is about show, not tell.

His remark about not calling his bluff notwithstanding, President Obama has at least demonstrated the political professionalism to read his lines. His refusal to sign a short-term debt-ceiling extension is, according to him, an act of moral leadership, high-minded pragmatism and flat-out bravery.

"I've reached my limit. This may bring my presidency down, but I will not yield on this," President Obama reportedly said about his determination to have a long-term deal. He says he wants the deal because America can't continue to kick the can down the road, even though that's what he did during his entire presidency until the GOP got in the way.

My suspicion is that if he read his stage direction instead of his lines, it would sound very different. Something like: "I want to be positioned as if I'm taking the high road, but I'm really just trying to kick this can past the 2012 election. I want to keep asking for things Republicans won't agree to so I can paint them as irresponsible. So, whatever you do, don't call my bluff."

Jonah Goldberg is a syndicated columnist. His email is jonahscolumn@aol.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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Republican PartyBarack ObamaDemocratic PartyMitch McConnellRonald ReaganEric CantorWhite House
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