Republican Debt Ceiling Strategy Doomed To Fail
At his press conference today, President Obama made clear once again repeated his previous statements that he was not going to let the GOP hold raising the debt ceiling hostage to their demands for more spending cuts. Republicans, not surprisingly responded fairly quickly by saying once again that they would not agree to any increase in the debt ceiling that was not accompanied by commensurate, and equivalent, cuts in spending. Thus, we’re pretty much in the same position that we’ve been in for weeks now, with little sign that either side is going to blink before we go over the debt ceiling cliff. As I noted earlier today, the GOP is sending word that they’d be perfectly willing to see a government shutdown or a default to get what the want. However, Ross Douthat notes that the Republican Party is pursuing a strategy that is, in the end, likely to fail:
[Republicans are unable to provide] an explanation of how, exactly, a default or a shutdown would actually prevent the long term accumulation of new debt and “force President Obama to finally to cut spending.” It’s missing because it doesn’t really exist, and it doesn’t exist because of, well, democratic politics. Yes, refusing to raise the debt ceiling or shutting down the government would technically prevent the national debt from rising the next day. But as with the $1 trillion coin, that technical solution would be a political disaster, because being perceived as the agents of an avoidable crisis would weaken the Republican Party’s standing with the American people in ways that would raise the likelihood of precisely the long-term outcome that Congressional Republicans are trying to avoid: A stronger Democratic Party, a more powerful liberalism, and a more expansive state.
[I]t’s perfectly sensible for Republicans to negotiate over how the debt ceiling is to be raised — to haggle over the extension period and the combination of Democratic and Republican votes, for instance, and to look for a small-ball deal on spending to give cover to the legislators who cast those votes. But there simply isn’t a way for the G.O.P. to win anything big here, given the correlation of political forces in Washington D.C. and the country as a whole. And the fantasy of leveraging the debt ceiling to “force” the White House to dramatically cut entitlements, if actually pursued rather than just entertained, would quickly put the Republican Party on the path to losing the more modest leverage that it currently enjoys.
Matt K. Lewis voices similar concerns:
A good political fight pits Republicans against Democrats. When Republicans win, Democrats lose (and vice versa.) Either way, the American public wins when both sides compete for their favor (as I’ve noted before, the GOP should be engaged in transactional leadership — but the transaction should appeal to the public’s better angels.)
But in this scenario, the potential victim in this game of chicken over the debt ceiling would be The American Public. And it would be done ostensibly by the hands of Republicans. That will be the perception at least . (Note: I realize continuing to ignore the debt crisis also hurts the American public — but, fair or not, that seems less immediate. I’m also aware of the nuances regarding the term, “default.”)
This is a lesson one would have thought the GOP would have learned a long time ago. We have a history going back to 1995 where a Republican Congress has tried to force a Democratic President to given in by threatening, or in some cases actually allowing, the Federal Government to be fully or partially shut down. In every single one of those cases, the GOP ended up losing the rhetorical battle and suffering in the eyes of the public. While Republicans didn’t lose control of the House in the 1996 Elections, for example, it’s arguably the case that the shutdown crisis of late 1995 and early 1996 went a long way toward reviving President Clinton’s political fortunes after the disastrous 1994 Elections and guaranteeing him re-election. Additionally, polling after the 2011 debt ceiling showdown and the just concluded Fiscal Cliff negotiations showed Republicans coming out of both crises with their perception among the public being harmed severely. Considering that we’re coming off an election where the GOP lost the Presidency and lost seats in both Houses of Congress, it’s somewhat surprising that they’d be willing to engage in a strategy that is likely to cause them harm in the future.
Moreover, as I noted earlier today, the consequences of a default on the part of the United States would arguably far more severe than any government shutdown. Whereas a shutdown typically just ends up being a public relations disaster for one party or the others, failure by the United States to pay its obligations, whether those obligations consist of payments on the debt or contractual obligations to contractors and vendors, will have serious economic consequences. As Lewis notes, does the GOP really want to be saddled with the tag of being responsible for forcing the economy into a recession? Moreover, if their strategy does result in the nation going over the cliff, it will only lead to the debt problem becoming a bigger issue because, as the last four years have taught us, the biggest contributor to massive increases in the National Debt is a weak economy. If Republicans are trying to fix the debt problem, they’re certainly going about it in a way that is not only guaranteed to fail politically but which is likely to make the very problem they claim to be concerned about all the worse. That’s not exactly smart politics.