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By now you’ve heard lots and lots about how our esteemed Senator Claire McCaskill has been trying to establish some of the thrifty granny cred beloved, she believes, in outstate Missouri, by shopping around a plan to institute draconian automatic spending caps. You’ve probably also heard that this plan is  “insane” and “a depression maker” – and arguments substantiating these labels are more than convincing. So why hasn’t McCaskill been willing to cut her losses and walk away from this very bad idea?

It isn’t as if her own party doesn’t know better. An article in the Wallstreet Journal reported that the White House and leading Democrats “have mounted a drive to discredit the idea,” even bringing in White House budget director Jacob Lew to school Senators about why caps such as those proposed by Senator McCaskill and Tennessee’s Senator Bob Corker are a really dumb idea. Even Jay Rockefeller, no slacker when it comes to stiffing his own party, has called out the McCaskill-Corker legislation as not too smart. MoveOn.org released a letter signed by 75 prominent economists outlining the ways that McCaskill’s spending cuts approach would be a very serious mistake indeed.

So, once again, why is our ostensibly Democratic senator holding firm in the face of overwhelmingly strong evidence that that what she is proposing is economic idiocy? Could it be that she is that worried about the accusations of “socialism” sure to come from Tea Partying opponents like Sarah Steelman and, possibly, Rep. Todd Akin? Hasn’t she figured out that they are vulnerable now that people are beginning to wake up to the fact that taking an out-of-control chain-saw to government spending may mean cutting more than foreign aid and inner city welfare?  Getting rid of things like Social Security and Medicare isn’t really as popular as one might suppose.

Speaking of cutting Medicare and Social Security, identifying oneself with this particular spending cap proposal may be bad politics as well as bad policy.  McCaskill has stated that she does not support Medicare or Social Security benefit cuts (although she has also indicated that she would be willing to push up the eligibility age for Social Security benefits – a de facto cut). However, a big part of the problem with the McCaskill-Corker  spending caps is that they would entail such massive cuts to both programs that it makes the cuts proposed in Rep. Paul Ryan’s GOP budget fiasco seem mild. Does McCaskill really want to tar herself with that particular brush?

Instituting automatic spending caps is one of those ideas that seem reasonable at first blush and it’s easy to explain to the economically unsophisticated. However, it addresses the wrong problem – the deficit is not caused by out-of-control spending, but by the recession, the Bush tax cuts and two expensive wars in the Mideast. Its effects would be disastrous for those middle class and working people McCaskill claims to support. It reinforces false Republican narratives and weakens the Democratic brand. It doesn’t even make good political sense – why would a Democrat want to be known for trying to shove Medicare into a grave while it is still alive and kicking?  

Could it be that McCaskill believes that at this point she has gone so far out on this particular rotten limb that she has no choice but to hang on? I have often been disturbed by Claire McCaskill’s choices – but I’ve never thought she was dumb. At least not until now.