Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images
the national interest

Centrist Fanatics Go Wild Over Debt-Ceiling Deal

They just like bipartisan deals, regardless of content.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images

There are plausible defenses to be made of the Biden administration’s negotiating strategy on the debt ceiling. I happen to believe Kevin McCarthy’s default threat was a bluff, and if not, Biden could have used executive action to avoid that outcome. But if you believe Republicans really would have triggered a global economic meltdown if Biden had refused to pay a ransom, and that the Supreme Court would have let them, then this ransom was about as painless as he could have gotten. And you could argue that, in the face of a likely challenge by Donald Trump, Biden was correct to worry first about avoiding a hit to the economy and can fret about the long-run costs of rewarding hostage-takers later.

But there is a small coterie of fanatical centrists who believe Biden did not merely manage to contain the damage. They see his deal as a shimmering triumph of bipartisan brilliance, not an exercise in harm reduction but something close to perfection itself.

By “fanatical,” I am trying to describe a thought system that is impervious to facts and wishes to make reality conform to their ideological archetype, regardless of whether it fits. They see the debt-ceiling deal as Good because it is supported by a coalition in the center and opposed by the extremes, which to their way of thinking demonstrates its virtue.

Washington Post foreign-affairs columnist David Ignatius, representing the viewpoint of official Washington, pronounces the deal a triumph. “President Biden this week accomplished what America elected him to do — govern from the center and make deals that solve problems,” he writes. “Progressive Democrats don’t seem to like that cooperative spirit, which is a big reason their candidates keep failing to become president.”

Is the progressive critique with the debt-ceiling deal really its “cooperative spirit”? If so, that theory would suggest progressives are equally angry with all of Biden’s bipartisan deals — gun safety, the CHIPS Act, infrastructure, and so on. But since none of those measures actually upset progressives, it suggests their actual concerns lie elsewhere.

Ignatius rebukes Democrats for opposing the spending cuts in the deal, which he sees as either good or only minimally harmful. It is genuinely impossible to tell which position he is articulating:

And please, Democrats: Trimming federal spending is not evil. Biden was right to endorse the GOP demand to restrain spending, and temper it so it did the least damage. The ever-growing federal debt (and the crushing interest on it) pose a threat to the nation’s financial security. Smart Democrats should plant their flag as the party of fiscal responsibility, ready to raise taxes on wealthy Americans, cut pork-barrel defense spending and reform entitlements.

What is he arguing here? Ignatius begins by asserting “trimming federal spending is not evil,” which could mean that either it’s good or that it’s bad but not that bad. Then he asserts the debt poses a threat, which seems to imply the deal was good. But then he urges Democrats to identify themselves as supporting higher taxes, lower defense spending, and entitlement reform, none of which were in this bill.

The bill instead cuts domestic discretionary-spending programs, which is basically every federal program that isn’t defense or social insurance: food-safety inspections, education, scientific research, infrastructure, and so on. This category of spending rebounded the last couple years, but dropped dramatically in recent decades.

Does Ignatius think the current level of domestic discretionary spending is too high or too low? It is impossible to say. He just likes bipartisan deals, as he explains:

What I like best about this deal is that it begins to reestablish a broad bipartisan political center. In the House vote, the agreement was backed by 165 Democrats and 149 Republicans, for a total of about two-thirds of the chamber. The rejectionists included 46 Democrats and 71 Republicans, and a Post analysis showed that they skewed toward the more liberal and more conservative members of each party.

If the correct legislators supported it, then it must be good. All the rest of his reasoning seems to proceed backward from that conclusion.

An even more convoluted celebration of the deal comes from Matt Bai, also a Post columnist. Bai touts the deal as a “total victory” for Biden, a “remarkably one-sided win” that constitutes “rolling over his adversaries.”

What did Biden win? Bai does not name a single provision in the bill that actually advances any of Biden’s governing objections. Instead, he lists a series of concessions Biden made to Republicans, explaining why all of them are not that bad. Capping nondiscretionary spending at levels lower than Biden wants probably would have happened anyway. Approving a natural-gas pipeline from West Virginia is “odious” but “probably won’t keep the president up at night” because it helps Joe Manchin.

“Americans between the ages of 50 and 54 who are getting food assistance will soon be subject to the same work requirements as those who are 49, which is mean but not outrageous,” he observes. “Mean but not outrageous” is a fair assessment of this provision, but, like “odious but won’t keep Biden up at night,” it is hardly a compelling data point if the thesis is that Biden achieved total victory.

Most bizarrely, Bai argues that scaling back the increase in IRS funding Biden pried out of Congress last year is also a win for Biden, even though Biden doesn’t agree:

Biden gave up some funding to modernize the Internal Revenue Service, which needed to be done, but which Democrats wanted in the first place mainly to justify projections of magical new revenue that would balance out their spending agenda. (Increased tax enforcement is the left’s version of supply-side economics.)

Supply-side economics is the counterintuitive proposition that reducing tax rates can produce higher tax revenue. (It is a theoretically viable proposition, possibly describing astronomical tax rates, that has never come close to holding true in real-world conditions.) Increasing tax enforcement is the highly intuitive idea that investing in the enforcement of tax laws will yield higher compliance, and thus higher revenue.

It is demonstrably correct that IRS funding has dropped substantially over time, that audit rates for the wealthy have plunged, and that the gap between the amount of tax affluent people owe the government and what they actually pay is extremely large. Numerous tax experts have argued in detail that stricter enforcement will increase compliance. The Congressional Budget Office likewise believes the IRS finding cut will cause federal tax revenue to drop by more than $100 billion.

Bai, on the other hand, believes that enforcing tax compliance will not lead to higher levels of tax compliance. He does not describe, or even gesture at, any evidence for this extraordinary claim. He just throws this assertion in the middle of the column as support for his notion that Biden got a big win by partially reversing his signature accomplishment.

After claiming Biden won absolutely everything, and then devoting most of the column walking through a series of concessions Biden made, Bai explains why the bill is a gigantic victory:

No, what made Biden president was the promise that he could make government work in some recognizable form again. That, after a half-century of dealmaking in Washington, Biden would be able to close the sinkhole of hatred and recrimination that the Trump era had widened. Until now, Biden’s successes in this vein — chiefly bipartisan laws on infrastructure and high-tech investment — have been pushed to the margins of news coverage.

But here, Biden managed to a score [sic] significant victory ahead of 2024: a high-stakes compromise across ideological lines, and images of the president arm in arm with a Republican speaker who seemed to loathe him just a week before.

So the argument appears to be that Biden’s other bipartisan legislative wins don’t matter because the media ignored them, but lifting the debt ceiling matters enormously. Raising the debt ceiling has happened 78 times since 1960. Every president has done it multiple times. “He raised the debt ceiling” is a legislative triumph roughly on par with “he successfully booked passage on Air Force One.”

Previous presidents have managed to raise the debt ceiling either as a stand-alone bill or as part of a larger deal with benefits for both sides. Biden — along with Barack Obama in 2011, who regretted it — stands out for having had to give unrequited concessions to the opposing party to accomplish this historically routine task. You can talk yourself into believing he didn’t have a better choice. But if you think this represents some kind of thematic high point for the administration and a fulfillment of Biden’s grandest promises, your commitment to centrist ideology has grown so dogmatic that you have lost all touch with reality.

Centrist Fanatics Go Wild Over Debt-Ceiling Deal