If the U.S. government defaults on its obligations because the statutory debt limit is breached later this month, it will be Mitch McConnell’s fault for filibustering a suspension of the limit. The blame will rightly be shared by the 49 other Republican senators who have gone along with his cynical and hypocritical insistence that Democrats use the cumbersome budget process to raise the debt ceiling without GOP support. (Republicans were perfectly willing to accommodate the debt run up during the presidencies of Donald Trump and George W. Bush.) Republicans are in the wrong here; there’s just no question about it.
On the other hand, “being right” will be cold comfort to the hordes of congressional Democrats who will almost certainly lose their jobs in 2022 if the economy collapses and/or goes into recession thanks to a debt default — not to mention the many millions of people whose lives will take a turn for the worse. “It was Mitch’s fault” is not going to protect Democrats, because voters typically hold the governing party (particularly if it has trifecta control of the White House and Congress, as Democrats do today) accountable for adverse conditions in the country regardless of who’s actually responsible.
I say this because congressional Democrats appear to be on the brink of going to the mat on the debt limit just 13 days before a debt default becomes not a distant threat but a reality. (Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has warned that the nation will exhaust its federal borrowing capabilities on October 18. Her prophecies on this subject are self-fulfilling, since financial markets are not going to run the risk that she was exaggerating). If Chuck Schumer continues to refuse to start the ball rolling on a second FY 2022 budget resolution at some point in the next day or two, then that Democrats-only vehicle for increasing the debt limit will soon be off the table due to simple time constraints (since that path involves two separate votes preceded by the unlimited amendment period known as “vote-a-rama”). At that point the Democratic strategy would be a gamble that in the end McConnell will back down thanks to pressure from Wall Street or (hah!) an innate sense of decency and adult responsibility.
I find it interesting that the same Democrats who are so furious about McConnell’s posturing on the debt limit appear unable to accept that he might knowingly plunge the U.S. and global economy into chaos. Perhaps calling his bluff would work, but perhaps McConnell justifiably believes a debt default under Democratic management of government would produce Republican majorities in elections as far as the eye can see. No one has ever lost a bet by overestimating McConnell’s coldly calculating willingness to do unconscionable things. Just ask Merrick Garland.
So is playing dice with the debt limit a smart move for Democrats right now? Not in my opinion. I understand that many politicians and advisers in both parties have been told over and over by activists and pundits that an unwillingness to “fight” the opposition to the bitter end is the principal problem in Washington. Sometimes that may be true. But in the panoply of maddening things about contemporary politics, the insistence on stupid, symbolic “messaging” gestures as the summit of all wisdom is surely just as bad. If Democrats play chicken on the debt limit and win there will be much rejoicing that they’ve beaten Mitch McConnell for once, and then we’ll all move on to the next “cliff” or manufactured crisis. But if the brinkmanship backfires, there will be hell to pay for a long, long time. Surely Democrats can find a better game to play, with lower stakes. This one looks too much like a “Heads I win, tails you lose” proposition for McConnell and the GOP.