Yes, the White House Is ‘Winning’

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The shutdown news of the day so far is that a White House official boasted to The Wall Street Journal, “We are winning ... It doesn't really matter to us" how long the shutdown lasts "because what matters is the end result.” This is a sort of gaffe, partly true and partly false. The government shutdown has a non-zero-sum result, in that it hurts lots of Americans. It’s also a zero-sum contest between the parties. Now, one of the ways you win the zero-sum contest is by not declaring you’re winning the zero-sum contest and thus opening yourself to the charge of indifference to the negative-sum effects.

Still, it is true that the Obama administration is winning the zero-sum contest. One way to measure this is polling, which already shows movement toward the Democratic side. Another way to measure it is that Republicans, who have spent months refusing any budget deal, are suddenly desperate to make a budget deal. A flurry of Republican proposals have been leaked or floated by or to Politico, Jonathan Ward, and Republican adviser Yuval Levin.

Republicans are looking to make a budget deal now because they want to escape the political nightmare they’ve created for themselves. They blustered into a shutdown that corrodes their party brand and cracks the door to flip the House, which ought to be otherwise impregnable in a low-turnout midterm election. They can’t figure out how to back down without winning concessions the Democrats have no incentive to give them. Then they need to lift the debt ceiling, where they’ve raised even loftier expectations, and where the Democrats are even more determined not to be held hostage. Their only way out is to fold everything into a negotiation, give the Democrats something, and hold up whatever they win as a trophy that made it all worthwhile.

For reasons I plan to delve into next week, I don’t find any of the offers leaked so far attractive on their merits, as you’d expect from an opening bid. But the larger problem is that none of them grapple with the procedural crisis. Obama’s view, which I share, is that the debt ceiling fight is far more important not only than the specific policies on the table, or even the catastrophic economic consequences of a debt breach. It’s a fight to preserve the Constitutional order.

And conservatives have resolutely refused to grapple with that fact. They have floated a few half-hearted, and easily refuted, claims that Congress has previously used the debt ceiling as a threat to extract concessions. Mostly, they have just treated the debt-ceiling crisis like an ordinary budget standoff.

Now, maybe they simply have no principled objection to this method. I’ve seen no conservatives, anywhere, actually question the morality of debt-limit extortion. (Apparently, if Democrats in 2007 had held the debt ceiling hostage unless President Bush rescinded his tax cuts, the entire conservative world would have objected to their policy goals but defended their methods. Who knew?)

But the bigger problem here is that conservatives are not acknowledging the Democrats’ belief. It’s not a pose. They genuinely think, regardless of the merits of the ransom demand, they can’t give in, both for the national long-term interest and on moral principle. Conservatives are acting like the problem here is that they asked for a bit too much to begin with, and want to start haggling down the price. The price isn’t the issue. If the conservative goal is to create the illusion of winning something for the debt ceiling, then they’ll come back next time to win more, and Democrats can’t allow that.