House Speaker Kevin McCarthy lamented over the weekend that President Biden won’t even talk to him about the budget deficit. “I know the president said he didn’t want to have any discussions, but I think it’s very important that our whole government is designed to find compromise,” he told CBS. “Unfortunately, the White House was saying before, like, they wouldn’t even talk.”
The poor, forsaken McCarthy has found a great deal of sympathy among his fellow conservatives, who bemoan Biden’s stubbornness. “For all of President Biden’s rhetoric this past election cycle of ‘threats to democracy,’ why is it Biden who is refusing to even engage with the new House majority elected by the American people?” complains the president of FreedomWorks. A Wall Street Journal columnist calls him “the president who won’t negotiate.”
By now, most observers have figured out the main lie this rhetoric is designed to obscure: Namely, it pretends that Biden’s refusal to pay a ransom is the same as a refusal to negotiate fiscal policy. Both parties understand perfectly well that Biden is willing to cut deals with Republicans on the budget; what he won’t do is make a trade where Republicans get policy concessions in return for not blowing up the economy.
But buried beneath this lie is a second lie, one that has entirely escaped scrutiny: That the Republicans are actually willing to negotiate fiscal policy themselves.
In 1990, George Bush struck a deal with Democrats to reduce the deficit through a combination of spending cuts and an increase in the top tax rate. The deal was successful in bringing down the deficit, but it enraged conservatives, who set out to ensure their party would never make such a compromise again.
They succeeded. Since the 1990 revolt, no Republicans in national office have voted for a significant tax increase. Republicans have developed a factional terminology that rejects the possibility that tax cuts increase deficits, or that tax increases alleviate them, as conceptually impossible.
Democrats have understood that any plan that includes tax hikes must necessarily forfeit any Republican support. (Even Joe Manchin, the most optimistic believer in bipartisanship, was clear that there was no point in trying to win any Republican votes for the Inflation Reduction Act.)
Barack Obama wandered into a hostage crisis over the debt ceiling in 2011 because he was so desperate to bring Republicans to the table. He convinced himself that the GOP’s insistence on cutting the deficit as a condition for raising the debt ceiling was the prelude to some horse trading, grasping only too late that he had entered into a hostage situation with a counterparty that had no intention of trading anything.
One reason Republicans have grown so reliant on hostage taking is that they can’t fulfill their goals through negotiation. The Republican revolutionaries under Newt Gingrich (who led the revolt against the 1990 budget deal) tried shutting down the government to force Bill Clinton to sign into law their plan to cut social spending and taxes. The tea-party Republicans tried the same thing with Obama on the debt ceiling. Now McCarthy’s maniacs are reprising the tactic against Biden.
If they really cared about the deficit, they could just sit down and make a deal with Democrats. But they’re not willing to do that because deals to reduce the deficit involve compromise. The only change Republicans are willing to entertain is cuts to social spending.
To be clear, I don’t see any great moral reason why Republicans should have to abandon their policy ideals for the sake of compromise. They earnestly believe rich people are overtaxed and don’t think any deal that involves taxing them more could ever be worth the cost. But in that case, they should try to win power and enact their own plan themselves rather than pressing a gun to the head of the Democratic president and trying to get him to enact their plan for them.
Nobody should be fooled into thinking the GOP has an interest in a real negotiation. The debt-ceiling hostage threat is not a way to bring the parties to the table. It’s what Republicans do because they won’t negotiate.