by Paul Goldman
“Some things are just too coincidental to be a coincidence,” goes the old adage. Yesterday, Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma announced that he had dropped out of the so-called Gang of Six, a bipartisan group of 3 Democrats and 3 Republicans, that had promised to produce a nonpartisan plan to slow down the growth in the national debt. Senator Mark Warner and Georgia Republican Saxby Chambliss are the lead public faces of the group.
Only a few weeks ago, Senator Coburn went on national television, praising the group’s work and challenging by name GOP conservatives for refusing to consider any increased revenues (aka, tax increases) as part a deficit deal. Coburn got hammered by the right — even Newt Gingrich didn’t stray on that one.
But things started to change on Coburn’s part after news surfaced of his previously unknown role in trying to negotiate a private deal to help protect and possibly save the Senate seat of now disgraced former Senator John Ensign from Nevada. All the details are not known, so it is impossible to determine how the revelation will shake out for Mr. Coburn. It appears Ensign hoped to buy his way out of a sex scandal investigation by buying the silence of sorts of the woman and her husband.
What is self-evident is this: the tea partiers and conservative bloggers and otherwise anti-tax Gop’ers are prepared to use the Ensign affair to go after Coburn should he continue to defy them on any Gang of Six deal that raises taxes. They will use whatever facts or fiction they can make up. The Ensign affair, shrouded as it is, offers them a Petri dish of ingredients to pound Coburn 24/7.
In the end, the “Gang of Six” is only as strong as its weakest link. Thus, Coburn’s vulnerability to those in his own party is/was likewise the group’s vulnerability.
Now, the break-up of the “Gang of Six” could be temporary, with Coburn figuring he needs to retreat right for the time being to keep his detractors at bay. Or, the debt-ceiling issue, now being tied to spending cuts by the Republicans, could have changed his mind. Perhaps Coburn realizes what once seemed the big game in town is no more, and he is retreating to the “cuts only” GOP posture, using the debt-ceiling issue as a way to keep his conservative street cred.
The media and “sources” claim that Coburn’s dropping out of the Gang involves his suddenly deciding on the need for greater Medicare cuts. All of a sudden, just like that, Coburn starts making demands he knows the other 5 have rejected time and time again? And now he is surprised they won’t go along and thus is disappointed? Please, don’t insult our intelligence.
Net, Net: Count me in the “too coincidental to be a coincidence” camp. Logic suggests Coburn, sensing vulnerability on his right flank, decided discretion to be the better part of valor, particularly as the debt-ceiling issue risked putting him too far out front on tax increases right now. Let’s see what the other two GOP members of the Gang do now.
This incident is another lesson in the old political adage that timing is most everything at that level. The need to address the debt ceiling is immediate, and thus takes precedent in politics. The Republicans have taken, at least for now, tax increases off the table in terms of any debt-ceiling deal. In that context, the Gang of Six runs counter to this effort and thus puts all those 3 GOP Senators at risk of angering their colleagues (unlike earlier, when 32 Republicans urged them to keep negotiating).
Moreover, once a debt ceiling deal gets done – and it will – the logic suggests neither the GOP nor the Obama Administration will see any political advantage in making additional huge deals in this general area before the 2012 elections, except perhaps on a purely cosmetic basis.
Bottom line: The Warner-Chambliss group has reached its fail safe point. If all five can agree to a credible plan, they should release it. If not, and there is no chance of Coburn changing his mind in the near term, they might be politically wiser to suspend their talks until after the debt ceiling issue is resolved. This also makes good policy sense.