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The Shutdown Prophet

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The standoff embroiling Washington represents far more than the specifics of the demands on the table, or even the prospect of economic calamity. It is an incipient constitutional crisis. Obama foolishly set the precedent in 2011 that he would let Congress jack him up for a debt-ceiling hike. He now has to crush the practice completely, lest it become ritualized. Obama not only must refuse to trade concessions for a debt-ceiling hike; he has to make it clear that he will endure default before he submits to ransom. To pay a ransom now, even a tiny one, would ensure an endless succession of debt-ceiling ransoms until, eventually, the two sides fail to agree on the correct size of the ransom and default follows.

This is a domestic Cuban Missile Crisis. A single blunder could have unalterable consequences: If Obama buckles his no-ransom stance, the debt-ceiling-hostage genie will be out of the bottle. If Republicans believe he is bluffing, or accept his position but obstinately refuse it, or try to lift the debt ceiling and simply botch the vote count, a second Great Recession could ensue.

When Linz contemplated the sorts of crises endemic to presidential systems, he imagined intractable claims of competing legitimacy—charismatic leaders riding great passionate mobs, insisting they alone represented the will of the people. The present crisis is a variation of that. Republicans insistently point to polls showing disapproval of the Affordable Care Act—a kind of assertion of legitimacy via direct referendum, implicitly rebuking Obama’s counter-argument that the presidential election settled the issue of repealing the Affordable Care Act. But the Republican position rests more heavily on the logic of extortion rather than popular mandate. “No one wants to default, but we are not going to continue to give the president a limitless credit card,” warned Republican representative Jason Chaffetz earlier this year. Obama “will not permit an economic crisis worse than 2008–09,” wrote former Bush administration speechwriter Marc Thiessen, and thus “has no choice but to negotiate with GOP leaders.” Republicans argue that Obama bears all responsibility for avoiding a national catastrophe; Obama argues that both sides bear an equal amount every day—and that this particular mess is not his to clean up.

How to settle this dispute? Here is where Linz’s analysis rings chillingly true: “There is no democratic principle on the basis of which it can be resolved, and the mechanisms the Constitution might provide are likely to prove too complicated and aridly legalistic to be of much force in the eyes of the electorate.” This is a fight with no rules. The power struggle will be resolved as a pure contest of willpower.

In our Founders’ defense, it’s hard to design any political system strong enough to withstand a party as ideologically radical and epistemically closed as the contemporary GOP. (Its proximate casus belli—forestalling the onset of universal health insurance—is alien to every other major conservative party in the industrialized world.) The tea-party insurgents turn out to be right that the Obama era has seen a fundamental challenge to the constitutional order of American government. They were wrong about who was waging it.


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