Saturday, January 19, 2013

A Quick Note on the Debt Ceiling

So, it looks as though the Republicans have found a face-saving cave on the debt ceiling.  They will raise it, but only for three months.  Since everyone else is weighing in on the subject, I might as well.

Let me join with other liberals in my annoyance at moderate Republicans complaining that Obama is playing dirty.  The Party of Personal Responsibility should show a little.  If you are threatening to crash the economy by defaulting on the debt, you don't get to point at Obama and say, "The devil made me do it."  If you are trying to force a choice between unpopular cuts to popular programs and economic ruin, you have no business complaining if the President points this out.  It is not dirty pool to point out that the opposing party holds unpopular views or to want to win the upcoming midterms; it is politics as usual.  If you have painted yourself into a corner, it is not your bitter political rival's obligation to get you out; that is your problem.  And, finally, if for the last four years you have eschewed the normal politics of compromise vowing all-out confrontation until one side is totally defeated, you don't get to call off the game when that side is looking to be you.

Ultimately, I think the Republican's problem is that a threat so drastic as a refusal to raise the debt ceiling is the sort of thing that can only be done once.  The first time the issue was raised, Republicans found a sympathetic audience in the American public. Government's ability to raise its own debt ceiling at will sounds bad, given that no one else has that power.  Most people did not understand the catastrophic consequences of a refusal and agreed with the Republicans that the debt ceiling should not be raised.  Plenty of rank-and-file Republicans either did not understand the catastrophic consequences themselves or assumed that polls showing the American people opposed raising the debt ceiling meant they were prepared to accept the catastrophic consequences.  But as the deadline loomed nearer and nearer, people began to understand more and more what those consequences would be and to fear them, and public opinion gradually turned against the Republicans.

Well, this time is different.  This time Congressional Republicans are well aware what the consequences of refusal to raise the debt ceiling will be, and the American people have a better sense of how dangerous it is than last time.  All of this means that it is much harder this time around to disguise the fact the that Republicans are threatening to blow up the economy.  And threats to blow up the economy, for reasons incomprehensible to Republicans, tend to be wildly unpopular.  The Republican strategy is now apparently to hold votes to raise the debt ceiling every three months and hope to embarrass the Democrats (and primary any Republican who votes fort it) by pointing out their frequent votes to raise the debt ceiling.  But once you can portray a vote to raise the debt ceiling as a vote not to blow up the economy, then voting for it loses its sting -- and voting against it acquires a sting.  Besides, holding these spectacles every three months will simply drain them of all emotion content and make people stop caring.

Last year, Republicans took the economy hostage and threatened to kill it unless they got what they wanted. People were terrified.  But in the end, although Republicans got a ransom, it was a smaller one than they wanted.  People took note.  When they threatened the hostage again, many people feared they meant it this time, but President Obama took the gamble they did not.  And, indeed, the Republicans have now given the hostage a three-month reprieve, but say they really mean it, three months down the line the hostage will get it if they don't get the ransom they want.  Somehow I don't think anyone will believe them.  And if they choose to repeat this drama every three months, soon everyone will just roll their eyes.

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