How Republicans Failed to Understand the Democrats’ Debt-Ceiling Logic

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One of the causes of the economic and Constitutional crisis unleashed by House Republicans is their utter failure to grasp how Democrats would perceive their behavior. Conservative reporter Byron York perceptively, and alarmingly, describes a discussion with an influential Republican, who explains that the GOP stumbled into the shutdown war without a plan and repeatedly expected Democrats to bail them out by capitulating, only to be shocked when they refused. The GOP’s strategic failure has grown out of its intellectual insularity (or, to reprise a once-hot term, epistemic closure) leaving them so unaware of the principles motivating the other side that they couldn’t anticipate the Democrats’ obvious response.

“I would liken this a little bit to Gettysburg,” York’s source explained, “where a Confederate unit went looking for shoes and stumbled into Union cavalry, and all of a sudden found itself embroiled in battle on a battlefield it didn't intend to be on, and everybody just kept feeding troops into it.” An even more apt, and more recent, analogy might be Iraq, when Republican war planners expected a suspicious Muslim culture to greet their troops with sweets and flowers.

If you reside within the conservative news bubble, you probably had no idea before this crisis what the Democratic position on the debt ceiling and the shutdown is. You still probably have no idea now. On Fox News Sunday, George Will purported to locate an “absurdity” in Obama’s refusal to negotiate the debt ceiling. Obama, he told listeners, was arguing, “Default would be catastrophic — world-wide depression, political chaos, locusts, plagues, et cetera. But attach to the debt-ceiling construction of the Keystone pipeline, it’s better to have locusts, plagues, crisis, and war.”

That would be a crazy thing to believe, wouldn’t it? But of course Obama’s administration has a ready and oft-proffered explanation. They see the debt-ceiling fight as being mainly about the long-term question of whether Congress will cement into place the practice of using the debt ceiling to extort concessions from the president. The price of buying off a debt-ceiling hike would surely be less than the risk of a default. But doing so would enshrine debt-ceiling extortion as a normal congressional practice. This both skews the Constitutional relationship between branches — allowing an unscrupulous Congress to demand unilateral concessions at gunpoint rather than having to compromise — and creates endless brinksmanship that would eventually lead to a default.

The administration’s stance, then, is that submitting to ransom now creates the certainty of default eventually. Will is correct that paying a ransom would reduce the probability of a short-term default, but it would increase the probability of a long-term default.

I’d be interested in hearing a conservative rebuttal to this analysis, which I share. Maybe there’s an argument that it would be Constitutionally desirable to give Congress the ability to leverage unreciprocated concessions from the president by threatening global havoc, and that we can be confident that such negotiations could be undertaken regularly without any risk of failure. Unfortunately, I have not seen any argument rebutting Obama’s view, because rebutting it requires acknowledging it.

Will’s comment was introduced by host Chris Wallace asserting that Congress has negotiated over the debt limit 27 times before, which is laughably false — Congress has appended debt-ceiling hikes to separately negotiated budget legislation 27 times. It has threatened not to raise the debt ceiling in order to extort concessions only once before, in 2011.

The gambit worked for Republicans then, and so they assumed they could simply do the same thing again. (Which is why Obama misjudged so catastrophically by submitting to extortion, and is so determined to correct his error.) But some things have changed. Obama at the time interpreted Republican complaints about the debt as the prelude to a traditional negotiation with mutual compromises, which was never a plausible outcome. The afterglow of the midterm elections gave the GOP a quasi-mandate. The Republicans’ repeated framing of their policy demands as a desire for lower debt (which is not the same thing as its actual position, which defended lower tax rates and less social spending) likewise lent their hostage demands a sheen of bipartisan legitimacy. The deficit scold movement actually endorsed the use of the debt ceiling as a hostage, lending Republican demands a sheen of fiscally responsible, good-government legitimacy. Today, Democrats not only occupy a stronger position, they realize this is their only chance to stamp out the practice of debt-ceiling extortion.

To be sure, there is a strategic rationale for the Republicans’ failure to acknowledge the Democratic stance. You can make a self-interest case for extortion, both from the perspective of the extortionist (here are the goodies we’ll get!) and from the perspective of his victim (here is what will happen if you refuse). I’ve seen conservatives making both cases frequently. But politicians, activists, and pundits are in the business of presenting moral justifications for their stance, and defending extortion on the basis of abstract moral logic is hard.

If Republicans were just pretending not to understand the Democratic position, it’s hard to believe they’d have placed themselves in this position, which they realize is awful. “Instead, it's no, we're not going to negotiate, we're not going to negotiate, we're not going to negotiate," complains York’s source, "Which means effectively you're going to try to humiliate the Speaker in front of his conference.” In this case, we seem to be looking at not just strategic ignorance but the genuine article.