Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Kamikaze Option

So, the latest inside scoop is that the Republican House leadership has probably persuaded the rank and file to refrain from shutting down the government in order to defund Obamacare.  Instead:
Sources tell me the House GOP will probably avoid using a shutdown as leverage and instead use the debt limit and sequester fights as areas for potential legislative trades. Negotiations over increasing the debt limit have frequently been used to wring concessions out of the administration, so there may be movement in that direction: Delay Obamacare in exchange for an increased debt limit.
Naturally liberal commentators are shocked, shocked.  My reaction, I must say, was to say, well, duh, I knew they'd do that from the start.  Suppose you want to kill the Democrats' signature domestic achievement, but you control only one house of Congress, so outright repeal is out of the question?  Suppose it's getting really urgent because within just a few months people will start getting health insurance under it, and taking away people's health insurance is a surefire electoral loser.  What do you do?

Well, you don't make it part of a sequester deal.  Granted, Democrats want to roll back the sequester limits on spending and Republicans want to end Obamacare, or at least delay implementation for a year, but that is not going to go over as a deal.  Democrats value offering health insurance to millions, starting next year more than they value a general rollback of the sequester.  Even a proposal to delay for one year will not go over.  If you create an expectation of insurance starting next year, delaying it a year more more will create entirely justifiable anger by people whose expectations you have betrayed.  Besides, it will also allow Republicans to run for Congress next year on a promise to block the monstrosity, rather than a promise to take away people's health insurance.  Why would Democrats give them such an advantage?  On the other hand, Democrats might agree to change some of the features Republicans find most objectionable in exchange for a smaller rollback.  Most obvious would be a repeal of the fines on employers who do not offer health insurance.  But given that Democrats are generally starting to agree that that particular provision was a mistake in the first place, it would hardly count as a concession at all.  Alternately, in a sane body politic, Democrats might agree to repeal the employer finds and the contraceptive mandate in exchange for a partial rollback of the sequester.  That would require some real and painful concessions on both sides in return for enough to matter.  But Republicans are dead set against any modification of Obamacare lest modification prevent its complete destruction.  And besides, the whole deal smacks too much of politics as usual and normal horse trading, something the Tea Party opposes on general principle.

You don't threaten to shut down the government over it.  Been there, done that.  As Republicans learned the hard way in 1995, government shutdowns are unpopular, and the public tends to blame Congress rather than the President.  Democrats certainly don't want a government shutdown, but they consider it survivable.  We have endured government shutdowns before without too much harm.  In fact, it would probably be politically advantageous to Democrats.  So even a government shutdown looks too much like politics as usual.

No, what you do is threaten to refuse to raise the debt ceiling.  Government shutdown is the devil you know.  Refusal to raise the debt ceiling is the devil you don't know.  No one knows the damage it would do to the country as a whole.  Tea Party Republicans may very well gamble that Democrats in general and Obama in particular fear such an outcome so much they will agree to anything to avoid it.  They are mad as hell that their leadership backed down the last debt showdown without receiving any concessions.  And so catastrophic a threat would be a clear rejection of politics as usual and a display of inflexible "principle."  It is also something the Republican leadership knows must not be done out of the same fear for the damage it would cause.  And any deal the Republican leadership can make that falls short of the repeal of Obamacare will look to the Tea Party like yet another betrayal.

So what is John Boehner to do?  Well, all along he has had one trump he can play at any time.  He can introduce a measure without the support of the majority of Republicans and pass it with mostly Democratic votes and just a few Republican defectors.  This has often been floated as a possibility for comprehensive immigration reform.  The problem is that if it does it too often, his party will depose him as speaker and choose someone more to their liking.  And no one knows how often is too often.  The question, as Jonathan Chait puts it, is how many shit sandwiches can the leadership make the rank and file swallow.  It is perfectly reasonable for Boehner to assume that the number of deals he can pass with mostly Democratic votes before he loses his speakership is one.  Quite probably, it will also lead to to a primary challenge and the loss of his seat.  Since the style had been to give political maneuvers highly over-inflated names, like calling ending the Senate filibuster the nuclear option, or refusal to lift the debt ceiling the Armageddon option, let us call this on the kamikaze option.  Boehner is being asked to sacrifice his political career for the good of his country.

Furthermore, there is no reason to believe that Boehner's motives for wanting to hold onto his speakership are entirely selfish.  He must be worried about what will happen, both to his party and his country, if he is deposed as Speaker.  If his replacement is Eric Cantor or Paul Ryan, presumably he would not be too alarmed.  They may be harder line that he is on spending, but both understand the need to raise the debt ceiling and to avoid a government shutdown.  (They also both favor comprehensive immigration reform, but that is still in the realm of regular politics, rather than outright hostage taking).  But what if the Tea Party chooses one of its own who doesn't understand such things?  What, in other words, if the lunatics are allowed to run the asylum?  The thought must scare the hell out of John Boehner.

Well, here would be my advice to him.  Don't throw away your political career too lightly.  We must assume that the number of times you can pass legislation with mostly Democratic supporters before losing your perch is one, and save that for the last resort.  Don't squander it on immigration reform.  Don't squander it on a sequester deal.  Don't even squander it on avoiding a government shutdown.  Save it for the debt ceiling.  But if worst comes to worst, be prepared to commit political suicide for that.  Give an extension of the debt limit, if possible until after the 2016 election, but definitely until after 2014.  (I would prefer to abolish the debt ceiling altogether, but that is probably asking too much).  Think of it as taking a sharp knife away from a baby.  Or better, since the baby is unlikely to hurt anyone with a knife except itself, think of it as taking a volatile explosive away from a baby.  If the lunatics are going to take over the asylum, you can probably only prevent them for so long.  So take away the debt ceiling so as to limit the harm they can do.

My advice to Democrats:  Don't expect Boehner to commit political suicide lightly.  Be prepared to offer at least some concession in return.  And my advice to corporate interests and lobbyists:  Watch Lincoln.  See all the legal bribes they offered, in the form of cushy federal jobs.  The President doesn't have such jobs to offer anymore.  You do.  Offer Boehner and any other defectors sacrificing their political careers for the good of their country some nice, cushy jobs in industry and lobbying as a reward.  Tea Party Republicans will decry such a deal as corrupt, and they will be right.  But given the alternative, it is well worth doing.

1 comment:

  1. There are at least a few other options. If there are actually enough Republicans willing to vote for a debt ceiling hike, it could be passed in the Senate and brought to the floor against the Speaker's wishes- or at least without his active cooperation- by a discharge petition. That is potentially tougher on the rogue Republicans who sign the petition and vote for the bill, but at least it keeps Boehner's hands clean.

    Another possibility would be some kind of alliance between the Democrats and some number of moderate Republicans to either keep Boehner as Speaker or at least oppose whatever crazy candidate the Tea Party puts forward to oppose him. This one is far less likely, because it would open a formal fracture within the Republican caucus and possibly within the party as a whole. The threat might be enough to prevent the Tea Partiers from making somebody really repulsive Speaker; whomever they nominate has to be more attractive to moderate Republicans than Nancy Pelosi, which isn't saying much but might actually be saying something.