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How GOP Leadership’s Neutering Of Budget Hawks Left Them Unarmed Against Trump’s Debt Deal


September’s fiscal deal between President Donald Trump and congressional Democrats was an unpleasant surprise for Republicans on Capitol Hill. They opposed its substance and were frustrated with Trump for partnering with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

Still, most Republicans voted for the agreement in the end. That they did so suggests it is unlikely that they will fare better in future fiscal showdowns. This is because the way Republican leaders corralled the votes necessary to prevail in similar situations in the past left them unable to oppose the president’s agreement to suspend the debt ceiling and fund the government for three months.

In short, the underlying dynamics governing fiscal showdowns effectively forced Republican leaders to embrace the agreement despite their opposition.

Let’s Review the Series of Debt Limit Hikes

The 2011 debt debate and the government shutdown in 2013 significantly affected how the Republican leadership views high-stakes fiscal showdowns. In 2011, conservatives effectively defined the party position heading into negotiations with their proposal to cut, cap, and balance the federal budget. In 2013, the leadership failed to anticipate the extent to which rank-and-file Republicans would support conservative calls to defund Obamacare in the annual appropriations process.

The takeaway for leaders from both episodes was that Congress could not raise the debt ceiling or fund the government if they were unable to maintain control over what the Republican position was. Preventing similar scenarios from occurring in the future required leaders to block conservatives from setting the GOP’s negotiating position heading into high-stakes showdowns with the Democrats. Yet doing so was a delicate matter. Sympathy with conservative demands among the rank-and-file and their constituents meant the leadership could not realistically expect members to oppose their proposals directly.

Leaders navigated these conflicting imperatives by adopting two strategies common in politics: raising a dilemma to defeat an opponent and offering an alternative to divide its members. Focusing on these rhetorical devices illustrates how the GOP’s past success made passage of the September fiscal deal all but inevitable the moment it was announced.

According to the political scientist and game theorist William H. Riker, the dilemma works by portraying an opponent’s proposal as unrealistic. It is designed to persuade undecided actors (in this case, rank-and-file members, pundits, voters, etc.) that the proposal cannot succeed. The strategy works by raising a problem the opponent cannot solve (i.e., the dilemma). If employed adeptly, the dilemma leaves members who are concerned about the problem with no choice but to reject the opponent’s proposal.

The problem Republican leaders raised in the past was a debt default, government shutdown, or a combination of both. The dilemma helped the leadership prevent proposals it opposed from gaining momentum among the rank-and-file. The approach also allowed members to voice support for conservative proposals while refusing to make their passage a condition for raising the debt ceiling or funding the government.

The alternative works by presenting the opposition another course of action that divides its members. The alternative is designed to undercut the opposition’s support. In the context of the fiscal debate, employing the alternative alongside the dilemma emphasized that only those proposals that could guarantee an economic meltdown or government shutdown could be avoided were acceptable. The consequence of this was that only the proposals that were pre-negotiated with Democrats were acceptable to Republican leaders.

Trump Turns the Tables

The leadership successfully employed these two strategies repeatedly to raise the debt ceiling and fund the government. It appears they were preparing to employ them again in September when Trump, Schumer, and Pelosi announced their agreement.

Yet in an unexpected reversal of fortune, the fiscal deal confronted Republican leaders with the same dilemma they had used regularly in the past to neutralize conservatives. Had Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan instead chosen to fight the fiscal deal, they would have had to counter it with an alternative of their own that offered a better way to avoid a debt default and government shutdown.

Or they could have tried to redefine the debate by raising a new dilemma, such as unsustainable government spending. That McConnell and Ryan chose not to adopt this course of action suggests they were unwilling to embolden conservatives, because that would make it harder for them to control the debate within the party over how to deal with these issues moving forward. Out of options, the leaders had no choice but to support the agreement reluctantly and encourage as many Republicans to vote for it as possible to ensure its passage.

Acknowledging how Republicans’ past efforts are responsible for their current predicament suggests it is unlikely that they will fare better in future fiscal showdowns. Absent a fundamental shift in how their leaders view such struggles, the best outcome Republicans can hope for is to resist Democratic efforts to extract policy concessions from them in exchange for lifting the debt ceiling and funding the government.