Staring Down the Schoolyard Bully

What a difference a year makes when it comes to the attitude of Republicans regarding the debt ceiling.

In 2011, Republican leaders spent the incipient months of the debt ceiling fight publicly stating that they would ultimately raise the debt ceiling.  They cloddishly communicated to the Democrats the reality that they would never engage in brinkmanship by declining to raise the debt ceiling after Tim Geithner’s arbitrary deadline of August 1, 2011.  Consequently, despite Obama’s dismal approval numbers, he felt confident he’d be able to ride out the storm until the final days, when Republicans would undoubtedly cave.


And boy did they cave.

Not only did they grant Obama a free $2.1 trillion debt card to take him past the election, they passed the Budget [out of] Control Act, which locked in Obama’s spending levels for 10 years, thereby obviating any future leverage in annual budget fights.  The only real cuts that emerged from the deal were defense cuts, which gratuitously opened a schism between defense hawks and fiscal conservatives to this day.

What do we have to show for it?  A downgraded credit rating and a new debt ceiling crisis 17 months later.

At the time, John Boehner declared that he won 98% of everything he aimed to achieve.  That sentiment was echoed by the overwhelming majority of the conservative intelligentsia.  In fact, those of us who understood our leverage when Obama was unpopular, and desired to fight for Cut, Cap, and Balance, were maligned for being “intransigent.”

Now, after seeing what thin leverage really looks like with the fiscal cliff, many of our detractors have come to appreciate the leverage that comes with the debt ceiling.  Unlike with the fiscal cliff, the default position is one that is favorable to us.  No new debt is incurred.

Whether Republicans ultimately hold the line or not (fat chance) is yet to be determined.  However, one thing that has changed due the ephemeral tough talk from Republicans is a sense of fear from Obama and the Democrats.  We are now hearing noise from the left about using a convoluted interpretation of the 14th Amendment to unilaterally raise the debt ceiling.  They are talking about using the courts to settle the fight.  They are even pushing the magic $1 trillion titanium coin to service more debt.


Why the sudden sense of panic from the left?

Behind the irascible bravado and confidence in Republicans taking the blame for a partial government shutdown, Democrats know that a fight about spending and debt, when articulated properly by Republicans, will reflect badly on them.  Until now, they always operated with the certitude that Republicans will ultimately cave.  They probably will cave in the end once again, but here is what concerns Democrats:

  • House Republicans were willing to humiliate Boehner over the fiscal cliff by scuttling “Plan B” and forcing him to pass the final deal with Democrat support.
  • Another group of at least two dozen members were willing to join a coup to oust Boehner from the speakership.
  • As a result of getting a raw deal on the fiscal cliff, in conjunction with nothing to show from the entire 112th Congress, a growing body of the membership is ticked..really ticked.  If you’re Obama, you’re thinking that these guys will not let Boehner cave, whether he likes it or not.  One more budget cave, and these guys will toss him.
  • Obama was counting on using the sequester as a hostage during the debt ceiling fight.  He planned on holding it over Republicans for raising the debt ceiling or raising taxes.  Now, most Republicans are rightfully saying they are willing to shoot the hostage.

In other words, whether they ultimately follow through with it or not, Obama and his fellow bullies are finally getting the feeling that someone is willing to stare them down.  The more they continue starring him down every time he screams “default” or “government shutdown,” the more he will buckle.  Ultimately, brinkmanship is the only thing that will give us a chance to exact transformational change.  And this is the sort of brinkmanship we must embrace.


Cross-posted from The Madison Project


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