Can I burn down your house? No Just the 2nd floor? No Garage? No Let's talk about what I can burn down. No YOU AREN'T COMPROMISING!
— Judd Legum (@JuddLegum) October 2, 2013
Much ink has been spilled over the relative blame that should be assigned to various parties in the current government shutdown / impending debt-ceiling fiasco from hell. (About that spilled ink, I’m speaking virtually, of course: no one still publishes on physical paper anymore, do they?)
Aside from the predictable litany of “both sides need to compromise” bullshit from the zombie lords of political commentary — which The Atlantic‘s James Fallows, Al Jazeera‘s Dan Froomkin, and NYU professor Jay Rosen continue to eviscerate brilliantly — perhaps most distressing still are the results of today’s Gallup poll:
Americans are now more likely to name dysfunctional government as the most important problem facing the country than to name any other specific problem. Thirty-three percent of Americans cite dissatisfaction with government and elected representatives as the nation’s top issue, the highest such percentage in Gallup’s trend dating back to 1939. Dysfunctional government now eclipses the economy (19%), unemployment (12%), the deficit (12%), and healthcare (12%) as the nation’s top problem.
This is, in its own way, tantamount to a Republican victory — and one that could have more profound long-term implications than whatever short-term turbulence the GOP has inflicted upon itself courtesy of its decreasingly fringe-y “wacko bird” fringe. Indeed, although early indications suggest that House Republicans may suffer for their intransigence in next year’s midterms, there are plenty of reasons to bet against the Democrats’ chances of retaking the lower chamber in 2014.
Meanwhile, the broader national disgust with governmental dysfunction plays directly into Republicans’ hands: in fact, it could be argued that the GOP will always have a home-field advantage of sorts over the Democrats when the two parties are at loggerheads over just about anything of consequence. When bitterly contested policy issues cause Americans to blame government generally (even if, as is the case now, one side is clearly precipitating the immediate crisis), Republican ideology wins the day. Time will tell if this triumph is more durable than the Democrats’ current advantage in generic horse-race Congressional polling.
But there is yet another component to this struggle that’s extremely apparent but is somehow not gaining the traction I’d expect, especially from left-leaning media outlets. And that is the direct line connecting President Obama’s decision to negotiate the debt-ceiling increase in the summer of 2011 with the current crisis. While there is no question that Republican lunacy is the immediate cause of the budgetary and debt-ceiling impasses, much longer-term blame rests directly on the shoulders of Barack Obama.
Today’s manufactured crisis was an entirely foreseeable outcome of Obama’s capitulation two years ago. In fact, Paul Krugman predicted exactly this sort of future as soon as the 2011 deal with Republicans was announced. In an August 1, 2011 column titled “The President Surrenders,” Krugman wrote:
For the deal itself, given the available information, is a disaster, and not just for President Obama and his party. It will damage an already depressed economy; it will probably make America’s long-run deficit problem worse, not better; and most important, by demonstrating that raw extortion works and carries no political cost, it will take America a long way down the road to banana-republic status.
Republicans will supposedly have an incentive to make concessions the next time around, because defense spending will be among the areas cut. But the G.O.P. has just demonstrated its willingness to risk financial collapse unless it gets everything its most extreme members want. Why expect it to be more reasonable in the next round?
In fact, Republicans will surely be emboldened by the way Mr. Obama keeps folding in the face of their threats. He surrendered last December, extending all the Bush tax cuts; he surrendered in the spring when they threatened to shut down the government; and he has now surrendered on a grand scale to raw extortion over the debt ceiling.
And this is exactly what ended up happening. Two days ago, Jonathan Chait explained this very phenomenon:
They see the debt-ceiling fight as being mainly about the long-term question of whether Congress will cement into place the practice of using the debt ceiling to extort concessions from the president. The price of buying off a debt-ceiling hike would surely be less than the risk of a default. But doing so would enshrine debt-ceiling extortion as a normal congressional practice. This both skews the Constitutional relationship between branches — allowing an unscrupulous Congress to demand unilateral concessions at gunpoint rather than having to compromise — and creates endless brinksmanship that would eventually lead to a default.
The administration’s stance, then, is that submitting to ransom now creates the certainty of default eventually.
The primary quibble I have with Chait’s explanation — as I do with most analyses I’ve read of the situation thus far — is that the time to establish this stance was two years ago, not now. Of course, now is better than never, but the risk of actual default does appear to be greater now than it was back in 2011, and this is primarily due to Republicans’ increased confidence — based on very recent history — that the White House and Congressional Democrats would simply capitulate once again. And this very expectation, paradoxically enough, made it more dangerous for the Democrats to actually stand firm and demand that the Republicans raise the debt limit without preconditions — precisely because the overly-confident Republicans had virtually locked themselves into a rhetorical corner over raising the debt ceiling.
So what’s the point? Aside from the fact that President Obama is quite clearly a disastrous negotiator, the primary point is that — contrary to “centrist” notions of endless compromise that are entirely unmoored from the empirical reality of each party’s ideological flexibility — giving away the bank to a party steered by radicals absolutely does not guarantee healthy compromises or even engender good-faith efforts in the future. To the contrary, when confronted head-on with the awesome incoherence of Tea Party rage, the worst possible weapon is the one President Obama wielded back in 2011: procrastination.