The dynamics of the debt ceiling endgame

I’m still sort of amazed at the amount of commentary that seems to skirt the basic issue here. The hardliners in the House are, dominantly speaking, the House freshman. The class of 2010, that were driven by the “Tea Party” insurgency, and won their seats by beating incumbents in primary elections.

They’re not afraid of criticism from the left — even when that “left” is an organization as staunchly business-oriented and traditionally Republican as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

They’re afraid that later this year, their local base, and local Tea Party organizations, will “primary them from the right.” They’re afraid, in other words, that someone else will repeat the process on them. Paint them as going to Washington and selling out. So the “Class of 2010” will probably remain largely intransigent in this process.

What seems to mystify everyone is why Boehner seems to keep courting them. He knows this. Every political strategist in the country knows this.

The problem is, Boehner will only pass a bill by working around, not with, the Class of 2010, by and large. And the calculus on this is simple. He needs House Democrats to vote for the final bill, and more moderate, longer-term House Republicans. Folks that are slightly less afraid of being reverse-primaried.

But this means making a deal with Democrats involved. Which is almost as bad as agreeing to raise taxes willingly. Which means that the final deal, if indeed one happens, puts Speaker Boehner at risk of losing the Speakership — great risk — and equally great risk of being primaried from the right himself and losing his seat in 2012.

And he knows this. So he’s going to wait until the last possible second. Because he’s got to make the worst decision a politician can make. He’s either going to be an ex-Congressman who saved the U.S. credit rating and helped avoid an even greater Depression, or he’s going to be sitting Speaker who presided over further economic collapse, credit downgrade, and a host of other catastrophes.

And that’s a terrible place to be. If he makes the former choice, I would suggest that we all give him the props he deserves, because he will have committed career suicide, in order to do what’s right for the country. And whether I like Boehner and his beliefs, someone who’s willing to do that deserves our respect.

And if he decides to walk off the cliff with the Class of 2010, then he, and they, will deserve their place in history. And it won’t be a good one.


2 Comments so far. Comments are closed.
  1. Author admin,

    Hmm…thanks for your perspective. I disagree on a couple of points, of course. First, I see little evidence that the “progressive” wing of the Democrats has gotten “extreme” along the same lines as the Republicans. What evidence can you suggest for this? If anything, since 1980, Democrats have moved to the right, and the few true “leftists” remaining in Congress are folks like Bernie Sanders and (until recently) Dennis Kucinich, who have little influence. Certainly nothing like the right flank of the GOP. So I’m either missing something, or I simply disagree.

    In fact, a big part of *why* the Democrats have moved to the right, is that we *lack* any meaningful or systematic enforcement in the primary system for “what constitutes a Democrat.” Over the course of 12 years from 1980 to 1992, we virtually abandoned New Deal/Great Society principles, got onboard with the notion that “mostly deregulated markets” were a good thing, and managed to elect a Democratic president in 1992 that a previous generation would have recognized as an Eisenhower Republican.

    The rightward drift of Democrats was driven by many elements, including rising prosperity as their own programs actually worked to lessen inequality and thus turn the working class into an investor class. But it’s also aided and abetted strongly by our lack of party-scale enforcement mechanisms for what “Democrats believe.” The GOP has this in spades. At all levels. Pledges. Scoring systems. Campaign funding tied to pledges and scores. Unless I’m missing something, and I’m active in Democratic politics, we lack any of this.

    I’m not saying this is a bad thing — I personally don’t like the idea of rejecting an incumbent who’s otherwise doing a good job because they had to make an unpopular decision. But it does create a strong selection pressure, whereby the right just drifts right, and what we formerly called the “left” follows.

    And I also disagree pretty strongly that “neither party leader” feels they can negotiate here. The Democrats have all but given away the store here. We’ve given on nearly every single point. The only point left that we’ve failed to capitulate on is having another debt ceiling fight before the 2012 election — but it’s only Saturday, there’s still time for Obama to “drop trou” on that one, too. I disagree completely that the Democrats haven’t been negotiating here. It’s the Republicans that have failed to negotiate in good faith.

  2. Mark,

    You had me until the end. I agree that Boehner has a tiger by the tail, but I don’t think that’s a particularly novel insight. Nor is it news that Boehner is not a very good strategist or negotiator, but this applies to both parties. The art of the deal evaporated in 1987 during the Bork hearings. What’s left is simply to witness the end game of an extremist and rather righteous tilt in politics that has been accelerating ever since. Hard liners in both parties have never regarded compromise as anything but weakness, and Boehner and Cantor (the latter being the smart one in that couple) are as much beset by this mindset as Pelosi and Schumer among the Democrats. The perverse game theory of party primaries has increasingly favored the more extreme elements in both parties, as much the Progressive wing of the Democrats as the Tea Party. The tipping point was probably last year’s defenestration of Bob Bennett by the Utah Republicans. Everyone was put on notice, and thus we have a situation in which neither party leader feels they can afford to negotiate. I thought cooler heads would prevail, and it is still possible that Reid has held his cards long enough to box a handful of moderate Republican senators into voting for his bill on August 1 or 2, thus forcing Boehner and a few moderate Republican representatives to vote for it that day or else. What happened in Minnesota last month made me realize that nothing is given, however, and regardless of whether Washington can even do a band-aid agreement, everyone has already committed political sepuku this time around. There are no heroes, least of all Boehner, who is most likely to be remembered as ineffectual, because the public has already turned against everyone. How Washington votes seems beside the point. Everyone is vulnerable, from Obama to the first-year Tea Baggers. Unfortunately, the way the primary system functions, the next congress is likely be even more dysfunctional.

    – Jay Taylor (Lara’s husband).