July 29, 2011 10:40AM

We’re In This for the Long Haul

Today POLITICO Arena asks:

Is it the Senate’s turn to take a crack at the debt ceiling?

My response:

Speaker Boehner has both the Constitution and convention on his side — “money bills” arise in the House. In fact, the Constitution is his strongest ally in his struggle to win the support of recalcitrant Tea Party members. They revere the document, after all, and no one has put the point better than Charles Krauthammer in this morning’s Washington Post.

Boehner’s bill, just to be clear, is a far cry from what this debt‐​ridden nation needs. As my colleague Chris Edwards put it yesterday, even the revised plan “doesn’t cut spending at all.” It “cuts” only from the CBO baseline, which assumes constantly rising spending. If Congress were serious about addressing our deficit and debt problems, Edwards says, it would have “to start abolishing programs, privatizing activities, and making other lasting reforms.”

Absolutely. But now step back and look at the larger context at the moment. As Krauthammer says,

We’re in the midst of a great four‐​year national debate on the size and reach of government, the future of the welfare state, indeed, the nature of the social contract between citizen and state. The distinctive visions of the two parties — social‐​democratic vs. limited‐​government — have underlain every debate on every issue since Barack Obama’s inauguration.

And the terms of that debate have shifted radically since the Tea Party came on to the scene. The “cuts” in the Boehner plan are modest, to be charitable, but there are no new taxes, which in an earlier day would have been taken as essential. And the focus in Congress and in the nation, as long as the Tea Party keeps up the pressure, is not on new programs but on eliminating old ones — when that is possible.

But right there we bump up against constitutional realty. As Krauthammer puts it, “you cannot govern from one house alone.” We’re light years beyond living under the substantive Constitution, which authorizes only limited government, not the out‐​of‐​control welfare state that got us into this mess. But we still live under the procedural Constitution, which means that Reid and Obama can block Boehner’s modest plan. Posturing aside, that’s not likely at this late date. Yet if Tea Party members overplay their hand, they play right into Obama’s hand, politically, going into 2012, when the battle over real change will be waged.

No war — and that’s what we’re in — was won in a day. It took 80 years for John Locke’s ideas about liberty to find their way into the Declaration of Independence. It took another 90 years for those ideas to bring an end to slavery. The limited‐​government ideas that the Tea Party has brought back to the surface are just now being felt in Congress. This is no time to abandon them. But neither is it a time to set the course of events back, perhaps irretrievably, by employing them unwisely. Take what you can, and live to fight another day, on the battlefield that lies just ahead.