SALT LAKE CITY – The head of the Democratic Governors Association accused GOP debt negotiators in Washington of trying to undermine the economy so President Barack Obama will lose his re-election bid next year.
Hogwash, responded Republicans.
But the charge from Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley is evidence of the political nervousness among Democratic governors looking ahead to 2012 after their ranks were thinned in the last election.
It also hints at the tenuous control the president has over jobs and the economy, the issues certain to dominate the elections.
At this weekend's meeting of the National Governors Association, O'Malley has said Republican governors should urge GOP lawmakers to make a deal with Obama to increase the government's borrowing limit before the Aug. 2 deadline when U.S. faces a financial default.
The Republicans seem to be led by uncompromising hard-liners, he said, singling out House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., for criticism.
"I think that there is an extreme wing within their party who have as their primary goal not the jobs recovery, but the defeat of President Obama in 2012," O'Malley said in an interview. "They know that their formulations, their policies of less revenues and less regulation badly failed our country and plunged us into this recession. So their only way of evening the playing field is to keep the president from being successful in the jobs recovery."
He contended that key Republican members of Congress, "through their intransigence, cleverly set up a situation for America's economy to fail, either by needlessly driving us to default, or needlessly driving us into massive public sector layoffs."
"I think that they are disgracefully cynical," said O'Malley, who has a prominent profile as head of the Democratic governors' group.
Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said "jobs and our economy are serious issues, and that kind of unhinged partisan rant doesn't help. We're focused on doing everything we can to help the economy grow by cutting red tape, increasing the supply of American energy, and ending the out-of-control spending spree in Washington."
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell's office did not directly respond to O'Malley's remarks. But the Kentucky lawmaker's office noted that Obama, while a senator in 2006, voted against raising the debt ceiling and accused Republicans of "leadership failure."
O'Malley, who some believe has national aspirations for 2016, acknowledged that it's rare for one elected official to accuse others of trying to hurt Americans for political gain.
"For eight years under George W. Bush, you never heard a peep from any of these most intransigent House members about the deficit that was being racked up by President Bush. Many of the same people who are claiming that there's no possible way that they can vote to raise the debt ceiling are people that voted to raise it in the past," the governor said.
O'Malley spoke openly about something that has troubled top Democrats for months. With unemployment at 9.2 percent, a further decline in the economy could make it difficult for any president to win a second term. The president has limited ability to control the economy, especially with Republicans running the House.
House Republicans have rejected Obama's demands for tax increases on the rich in exchange for deep spending cuts. That's in keeping with a no-new-tax pledge that most GOP lawmakers have signed in recent years.
O'Malley says their ulterior motive is to promote an economic downturn by blocking a resolution of the debt ceiling crisis or by slashing government spending so deeply that hundreds of thousands of people will lose their jobs.
Of course, a sour economy could hurt some Republican incumbents too. But politicians think presidents and governors get the most blame for bad economies, and only a handful of GOP governors might be seeking reelection next year.
Obama's campaign aides are keenly aware that the economy could worsen, and they want to focus the 2012 election on GOP weaknesses, not the president's stewardship of the economy.
Even with the Republican nomination far from settled, Obama's advisers have begun criticizing the records of various contenders, including former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
They are prepared to run a campaign that essentially says: You may be unhappy with Obama, but the alternative would be worse.
Republican governors reject O'Malley's claims and say they want a stronger economy. But they agree that Obama's re-election hopes ride on that issue, and the president may be in trouble.
"If the election is about Obama's policies and the effects of those policies, he'll lose," said Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who contemplated challenging Obama. "Campaigns are supposed to be about an incumbent's record."
Gov. Terry Branstad, R-Iowa, defended the Republican debt negotiators, especially Cantor. Obama carried Iowa easily in 2008, after winning the Democratic caucus. But leaders of both parties expect a highly competitive race there next year.
"We launched him," Branstad said of Obama, "but we can sink him."