Republicans Shouldn’t Play Obama’s Debt Game

Republicans Shouldn’t Play Obama’s Debt Game

Don’t give Obama and Reid the opportunity to change the conversation with scary talk.
Ben Domenech
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Republican leadership may have made up their minds about how they’re going to play out this scenario, tactically: They’re going to combine the debt ceiling and continuing resolution fights to escalate things and try to force negotiation, all the while trying to sell the conservative caucus on something far more modest than their individual mandate delay, such as the medical device tax or Vitter or something along those lines, as a sufficient win. But let’s consider how things might play out if they flipped the script.

It’s interesting how quickly conversations with the left about the government shutdown run to the debt ceiling battle, as opposed to sticking to the furloughed bureaucracy. On CNBC the other day, Obama went right to the message that Wall Street should be totally scared of these crazy Republicans on the debt limit… even as Boehner’s already indicated that he’s ready to deal on it. That’s interesting, because it suggests that Obama is far more comfortable making the argument that the Republicans are a bunch of extremists when it comes to the issue of debt and default, not a government shutdown. He’s hardly alone in this.

Keep in mind the original position of Republican leadership: fight for delay, and a slew of other things, attached to the debt ceiling, because it spreads the pain and the president wants it more. But the presumption of conservatives/Ted Cruz all along was that this was a bad idea: first, because they distrust Boehner, and thought he would never show real spine on the debt limit fight… and secondly, because they think Obama really thinks a debt limit strike/default wouldn’t reflect badly on him… which is why they fought so hard to make the hill to die on the continuing resolution and government shutdown. They won that fight, and now those are the lines of battle. Boehner now wants to combine these strategies into a hybrid of what he wanted and what conservatives wanted. But why do that? What if you stuck to the shutdown, but gave Obama a short term debt ceiling hike for free, or nearly free, attaching something small – Keystone, for instance – to it?

What if Reid and Obama want a debt ceiling crisis, believing it plays to their political advantage? What if they want to be able to shift the conversation away from a bunch of bureaucrats sent home with no pay to something that will tank the stock market, make grandma worry about her 401(k), and send more uncertainty at a time when people are already so uneasy about their livelihoods? What if you want to be able to shift the argument entirely away from Obamacare and the individual mandate and make it about failing to meet debt obligations? It always struck me as odd that Reid refused to put a debt limit hike in reconciliation (that the budget resolution was never agreed to by the House is immaterial). This would explain that, as well as Obama’s comments.

As J.T. Young writes today, Obama’s negotiation tactics are about more than just bravado.  It’s about the lessons he learned from sequestration:

The threat of sequestration was supposed to drive negotiators to the table. While it did, it did not drive them to a deal. So the cuts took effect this year. The White House was stunned. Now sequestration has produced a lower spending baseline from which the president has been unable to escape and looks unlikely to evade during his remaining time in office. The White House knows it cannot have a repeat – either of that level of spending cuts or political defeat. So it is seeking to preclude both by stopping negotiations before they start this time. Rather than losing them in the end, better to win them in the beginning by avoiding them altogether. However the roots of the administration’s non-negotiating stance may run deeper than just that last defeat. It is not just a repeat of the past it must avoid, but a continuation of the present.

Republicans should consider rejecting this game. Why not give Obama a clean or nearly clean debt limit increase? Consider the conversation between Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul the other day. What if they’re right about how this ‘we won’t negotiate’ thing plays? Wouldn’t it make the Democrats seem even more extreme if you just gave them a short term debt ceiling increase while keeping the fight over shutting down the government going, passing these funding bills that put them in a bind and keeping the focus on Obamacare? This isn’t to say you should give Obama an outright long-term debt ceiling increase – just give him enough to look reasonable (2-4 weeks at a time, along the lines of what Democrats did in their showdown with H.W. Bush over taxes) without relieving all the pressure.

Republicans picked the ground they wanted to fight on, so fight on that ground. Don’t split your forces between two hills, and don’t give Obama the opportunity to change the conversation with scary talk. Instead, keep passing partial appropriations to fund prioritized functions, just as you have this week. This would be rolling the dice on a different proposition – the idea that, just as we saw with the sequester, the American people’s frustration with government is such that they simply don’t have as much concern about shutting things down as they used to… where many of them think it might be a pretty good idea to get back to a government where all the jobs are “essential” ones.

Photo by White House
Ben Domenech is the publisher of The Federalist. Sign up for a free trial of his daily newsletter, The Transom.
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