Ramesh Ponnuru makes the case for a GOP debt limit fight about as well as it is going to be made by anyone. One way of looking at it is that refusing to unconditionally raise the debt ceiling in order to pay for already authorized spending is irresponsible. As Ponnuru points out, this assumes that either the budget process itself is responsible, or that a debate over the debt ceiling would necessarily make things worse. Neither of these things are true. The budget process is broken with much of the spending growing automatically (entitlements) and other spending passed in an atmosphere of hysteria and demagoguery. Ponnuru argues that a debt ceiling fight can be a moment to bring some deliberation to the budget process. There are several keys for the Republicans in a debt ceiling fight:

1. The GOP’s goals should be modest. The debt limit fight shouldn’t be about trying to balance the budget in one year or even to reach a deal to balance the budget in the medium-term. The Republicans would be better off supporting the modest spending cuts that Ponnuru lays out (capping Medicaid spending, increasing Medicare co-pays for seniors with high lifetime earnings.)

2. Have a Plan B to prevent a default on the debt in case the debt ceiling isn’t raised. The importance isn’t to have a plan that gets passed. Having a plausible plan makes it more likely that Obama will make a deal.  If it becomes obvious that the Democrats are the ones who are refusing to pass any bills to pay interest on the debt, the Republicans will be able to say “We passed a bill to prevent default, but they keep blocking it.” It won’t get through to everybody, but it is better than nothing, and Obama knows it is better than nothing.

3. Like Patterico says, stop saying you’re going to shut down the government. As Bill Murray said, “You’re scaring the straights.” Maybe you think they should be scared, but guess what? If you talk like that, they won’t be scared of the deficit. They are going to be scared of you. Republicans should try to be look like the party trying to minimize disruption by taking a few small steps to a more sustainable budget alongside raising the debt limit. It is the Democrats who would prefer to shut down the government and default on the public debt rather than go along with any spending reforms.

The most important thing is that the Republicans be seen as asking for moderate change in exchange for adding to our already gargantuan debt. If the president wants a higher credit card limit, then the country is going to need a better payment plan. The president should be portrayed as the rigid ideologue who is willing to take everyone down with him if he can’t totally have his own way. Come to think of it, Ted Cruz did a good job expounding that position a couple of days ago on Fox News Sunday . He just needs a better answer on government shut downs.

The worst debt ceiling outcome for the Republicans is that they are seen to take a “balanced budget or bust” attitude toward the debt ceiling. The deficit this year is likely to be over $800 billion. It has already been $292 billion for the first two months of fiscal 2013. No deal on the debt ceiling is going to get us to a sustainable budget. The kind of rhetorical maximalism that demands an immediate balanced budget plays into Obama’s hands. The best we can reasonably hope for is movement in the right direction.  If the Republicans are seen as demanding everything, then the public will turn on them. The result will be that the Republicans will be forced into a “debt ceiling increase plus nothing” deal.

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