Opposing Debt Ceiling Hostage-Taking is the Reasonably Moderate Thing to Do

Chris has offered a clarification of what he wrote last week about the “debt ceiling consequences of the [government] shutdown” in which he explains that he was not so much focused on how the shuttering of federal agencies might change the House Republicans’ calculations about how to approach the matter of increasing the debt limit as he was on the fact that a prolonged closure of the government would inevitably see the two disputes fused into one mega-dispute that would be much harder to resolve.

Given that these issues have been impossible for the two sides to dispose of separately, there is little reason to think that it will be any easier to do so if they are combined. Late last week, reports began surfacing that GOP leaders were coming to believe the only way out of the quagmire would be to finally strike a hitherto elusive “Grand Bargain” on taxes and spending with Obama and the Democrats. Business Insider’s Josh Barro posted on Twitter that “[t]he idea that resolving the shutdown becomes easier if you try to reform entitlements at the same time is so insane.” Convincing the Republicans to reopen the government and extend federal borrowing authority in one piece of legislation when they have been completely opposed to doing either separately will not be an easy task. Convincing them to do both of these things while also negotiating a fiscal accord that could not be concluded during any of the many attempts made since the wave election of 2010 – and to do all of that before the end of next week – would be downright Herculean.

Talk of the Grand Bargain may have faded, but the October 17th deadline is approaching fast and time to develop alternative plans is running short. This Week host George Stephanopoulos maintained on his ABC show this past Sunday that “the chances of actually tripping over into default are higher than they’ve ever been.” Ezra Klein’s Wonkblog has debuted a fun (but frightening) feature called the “Daily Default Dashboard” that uses a composite index of financial market indicators and online betting statistics to keep track of just how likely that outcome might be. As of yesterday, the needle had moved from “something’s not quite right” to “getting kind of scary” on account of interest rates on one-month Treasuries nearly doubling overnight.

I agree with Chris that the case for pessimism is strong. Yet I still think we as a nation are in a better position right now than if the Republicans had totally capitulated on the government funding issue and provoked the “whale of a fight” over the debt ceiling that House Speaker John Boehner promised back in August. For one thing, polls are beginning to show that the Republicans are indeed taking more of the blame than either Obama or congressional Democrats for the shutdown, and that even their own co-partisans are doubtful of the ultimate merits of their scorched-earth strategy (if one can call it a strategy). Unity in the Republican ranks is breaking down, even if the process of disintegration has so far proceeded in fits and starts.

By contrast, congressional Democrats – and especially Senate Democrats – have preserved their cohesiveness to a remarkable degree, selling even vulnerable red state members up for reelection next year on the benefits of maintaining a united front against the GOP. As a result, the Republicans have repeatedly downsized their demands and now seem willing to settle for relatively small-bore concessions like a repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s medical device tax or further means-testing of Medicare. Of course, the president’s position is still that any concessions are too many, but it is only because of his having adopted such an uncompromising stance in the first place that the opposition appears ready to end the crisis in exchange for token gestures.

On a related note, I think it’s important to flesh out a meta-point Chris made about his thoughts on the debt ceiling, namely why he felt the need to “come down so hard against the GOP.” He writes:

Negotiating over the specifics of a budget deal is one thing. A minority party’s use of its standing to block spending bills and dictate the legislative process is something else entirely. There will be a Republican President and Senate in the future; what happens if they encounter a Democratic House? Would we really want to go through this mess again? Establishing strong principle is imperative here, not for the benefit of the Democratic Party but for the integrity of the governing process.

Liberal commentators and politicians bemoan what they see as a “false equivalence” promoted by journalists, whom they perceive as reluctant to report on any example of bad behavior by members of one party without simultaneously highlighting a commensurate transgression on the other side of the aisle. While that is indeed a real problem, the current crisis has actually seen a range of nonpartisan media outlets displaying a greater willingness to assign blame solely to the Republicans.

To anyone who might charge us with abandoning our commitment to reasonable moderation by not offering up equally forceful criticisms of both parties, we answer that opposing debt ceiling hostage-taking is the reasonably moderate thing to do. As Chris pointed out, there are aspects of healthcare reform that can and should be changed, and we ought to having a vigorous debate about the fixes that need to be made as implementation proceeds. I suspect that he and I differ on what those fixes should be; maybe we can hash that out sometime soon. But for now, we are in agreement about the fact that the Republican Party’s current conception of the rules of American political engagement is a dangerous one. If we are ever again to be a fully functioning democracy, putting an end to these tactics is critically important.

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