Tea Trek: Into Darkness

The same people who told us a government shutdown couldn’t happen are now sure we’ll avoid a debt-ceiling crisis.

Unless a miracle occurs, the lights go off at midnight.

This week we got to see House Speaker John Boehner repeatedly flummoxed by events that played out in an utterly predictable way: Tea Partiers in the House refused to fund the government without killing ObamaCare. (Delaying it is just killing it in stages. If threatening a government shutdown or a debt-ceiling catastrophe can get it delayed this year, delaying it further can be an annual ransom demand for as long as Republicans have a majority in the House or 41 seats in the Senate.) Democrats in the Senate refused to let a minority party (even the Republicans in the House represent a minority of the voters) repeal laws.

And so the government will shut down at midnight.

For weeks, pundits have been telling us it wouldn’t come to this. No one could lay out a plausible alternate scenario, but it just wouldn’t happen. Boehner or somebody would pull a rabbit out of this hat and the government would get funded, like it (almost) always does.

Now the same pundits are telling us that a short shutdown won’t be that bad, and it really, really won’t come to a debt-ceiling default.*

However, the same configuration holds: House Tea Partiers insist on killing ObamaCare and Senate Democrats refuse to let a minority party repeal laws.

Late last week, several talking heads I usually agree with (like Chris Hayes and Ezra Klein) were even rooting for a shutdown, under the theory (as Rachel Maddow summarized it) that Republicans would “get their ya-yas out” and then be more reasonable about the debt ceiling. I think this view projects too much rationality onto the Tea Partiers. More likely, they will look at a government shutdown and say, “Look what we can do if we stick together and refuse to compromise! On to the debt ceiling! Obama may not be caving in yet, but he’ll really have to surrender then!”

As Rick Perlstein wrote Wednesday:

Despite a continuous flow of examples to the contrary this spring, summer and, now, autumn, our side keeps on wishfully, willfully and rather ignorantly denying the plain evidence in front of their faces about how conservative politics works. Namely, I keep seeing predictions that this, that or the other signal from polls or the political establishment or a traumatized public will “finally” “break the spell” of right-wing extremism on a certain issue, or even on all issues—and then we see that prediction spectacularly fail.

We can’t keep on going this way, my friend. You have to finally come to terms with how conservatism works. Now, that guy in the White House, Obama—I’ve given up hope that he’ll ever get it. I still have faith in you, though. Stop judging conservative by the logic of “normal” politics, or by the epistemology of the world as you, a liberal, understand it. Or as Poli Sci 101 understands it. Every time you do that, you denude us of strength for the fight. Grasp the right on its own terms. Stop trying to make it make sense on your own.

Jonathan Chait followed Perlstein’s lead in a fascinating-but-scary post on Friday.

Chait sees the current showdown in terms of a prophetic article “2012 or Never” that he wrote a year and a half ago during the Republican primary campaign. The Right was being unusually hysterical in 2012 — the same Mitt Romney who had been the conservative alternative to John McCain in 2008 was now far too moderate, despite having moved further the the right in the meantime — because it could feel the country slipping away from its control forever. Every cycle, it saw the electorate become less white, more secular, and less homophobic. Young voters and new citizens were breaking decisively against it.

Gay-bashing and immigrant-bashing used to be surefire crowd-pleasers. But now the right-wing populists were being told to tone it down for fear of spooking the independents.

2012 wasn’t just another election, it was the Right’s last chance.

If the terms of the fight grow more unfavorable with every passing year, well, all the more reason to have the fight sooner. This was the thought process of the antebellum southern states, sizing up the growing population and industrial might of the North. It was the thinking of the leaders of Austria-Hungary, watching their empire deteriorate and deciding they needed a decisive war with Serbia to save themselves.

At varying levels of conscious and subconscious thought, this is also the reasoning that has driven Republicans in the Obama era. Surveying the landscape, they have concluded that they must strike quickly and decisively at the opposition before all hope is lost.

Rebuild or dig in? After 2012’s decisive loss, number-crunching Republican consultants like Karl Rove preached adjustment: Soft-pedal the now unpopular social issues, placate the growing Hispanic bloc with immigration reform, reach out to young voters. Younger conservative pundits have imagined a Republican Party that offers right-leaning solutions to the problems of working poor, the struggling middle class, and those without health insurance, a party that has its own plan to deal with climate change, rather than denying the ever-increasing scientific consensus. Bobby Jindal fantasizes about not being “the stupid party” any more.

But it hasn’t gone that way, has it?

Instead of seeking to rebuild a majority, the Right now boldly seeks to rule from the minority. Their strategy is to gerrymander, block any path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, suppress voter turnout, and double down on the white vote. The Hastert Rule, that a bill won’t come to the floor of the House for a vote unless it has “a majority of the majority”, is a prescription for minority rule: A majority can be 51%, and a majority-of-the-majority can be 26%. LIkewise, the increasing abuse of the filibuster in the Senate allows 41% of the Senate (which might represent a much smaller percentage of voters, since Utah gets the same number of senators as California) to thwart the will of the majority.

Rick Perlstein points out that there is another scenario for the youth vote other than the left-turn predicted by Peter Beinart:

So let’s assume Beinart is right in his generational diagnosis: kids who came to their maturity during the “Age of Fail,” whose formative experience of American exceptionalism is that America is exceptionally crappy, are pissed, and are willing to work hard for politicians who are willing to do something about it.

If that is so, another scenario looks like this: young citizens motivated by left-leaning passions run into a brick wall again and again and again trying to turn their convictions into power. The defining story of our next political era becomes not a New New Left but a corrosive disillusionment that drives the country into ever deeper sloughs of apathy.

This is the future the Republican Party is currently seeking.

Down with democracy. Much of the Republican rhetorical response to the 2012 loss wasn’t to learn lessons from the voters, but to disparage American democracy entirely. Building on Romney’s famous 47% argument, apologists for Romney’s loss (including Romney himself) argued that the United States had reached a “tipping point” where an electoral majority is dependent on government, and so will automatically vote for the Democrats.

Follow that thought to its logical conclusion: Elections are now illegitimate if the Democrat wins.

Friday Chait observed how this is playing out:

Paul Ryan candidly explained the calculation: “The reason this debt limit fight is different is, we don’t have an election around the corner where we feel we are going to win and fix it ourselves. We are stuck with this government another three years.” This is a remarkable confession. Republicans need to compel Obama to accept their agenda, not in spite of the fact that the voters rejected it at the polls but precisely for that reason.

People who think this way are not going to change their minds when they see the polls turn against them. Quite the opposite, if Republicans become convinced that they will lose their House majority in 2014, that will make Tea Partiers all the more determined to have the decisive confrontation now.

Why ObamaCare? Why now? Sometimes, Ted Cruz claims he is representing the American people when he fights to repeal ObamaCare. But sometimes another agenda comes out:

No major entitlement, once it has been implemented, has ever been unwound. If we don’t do it now, in all likelihood we never will.

Again, that’s Chait’s now-or-never logic. And the threat it acknowledges is that once Americans see ObamaCare in action, they will like it. But there’s a deeper level to see than that: Cruz’s argument only makes sense if he’d like to repeal other entitlements like Social Security or Medicare, but can’t because they’re popular. This is an example of what Perlstein calls “time-biding”, in which conservatives pretend to support a popular program until they’re in a position to scuttle it.

Conservatives are time-biders. … They could not survive as a political tendency unless they clothed reaction in liberal raiment. You’ve seen that happen over and over again—like when people like Grover Norquist, whose aim is to roll back the entire welfare state, including Social Security, says what he’s really trying to do is save Social Security.

Where does it end? I have a prognosticating principle for situations like this: When a situation can only end one way, it will end that way — no matter how implausible that may look.

Tea Partiers will not back down. As Chait observes, Obama can’t back down either. Otherwise he is ratifying minority rule into the future. What he doesn’t surrender in this hostage crisis, conservatives will demand in the next one. And as elections are increasingly nullified by minority-rule tactics, the voters Democrats depend on for their future majorities will tune politics out. The Republicans’ whole 2012-or-never problem might go away.

So we’re on track for a debt-ceiling default. The only way out I can see is for Boehner and a handful of House Republicans to join Democrats in passing a clean debt-ceiling increase. Under the current balance of forces that can’t happen, because Boehner is afraid of losing the Speakership and the Republicans who might join him are afraid of Tea Party primary challengers.

What could change that calculation? The business community could change it. But why would they? A stock market crash could put the fear of God into them.

That’s what happened in the TARP vote in 2008. Bush administration Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and Fed Chair Ben Bernanke went to Congress and more-or-less said the financial markets would melt down without the $700 billion bailout package. The House voted it down anyway on September 29, and the next day the Dow dropped 777 points. The House passed TARP on October 3, after 57 representatives changed their minds.

I don’t know whether to expect that crash before or after we hit the debt ceiling. (As I write this, the Dow is drifting downward, but not crashing.) But I don’t see any other way out of this scenario.

* There’s been a lot of confusion about what this means, and this is one of the rare occasions where the media’s both-sides-do-it trope is really true. Republicans minimize the effects (building on their unfounded belief that vast amounts of wasteful government spending could just not be paid out without hurting anybody), while Democrats jump straight to defaulting on government bonds, which would send the world economy into chaos. A clearer picture is presented in slides put together by the Bipartisan Policy Center.

When the government can no longer borrow money, it will have to make do with the revenue coming in. Currently, that would mean cutting government spending by an average of 32%, though it would be more complicated than that because both expenditures and revenues are “lumpy”; it’s not like 68% of expenditures comes in every day. It’s also not clear how much the economic effects of a debt-ceiling breach would decrease revenue.

Interest payments on the debt average about 6% of the federal budget, so they could probably be made (despite the lumpiness) if the Treasury prioritized those obligations over, say, Social Security checks, disaster relief, supporting our troops in the field, and all the other obligations of the federal government. However, it’s not clear whether anybody has the constitutional authority to make choices like that. Up until now, a US government obligation has been as good as gold, whether it was a bond or a procurement contract or a pension. Appropriation bills and entitlement programs are laws, after all. If the law says a payment is to be made, who has the authority to say otherwise?

So the economic chaos will be compounded by legal chaos, as everyone whose payments are delayed sues. Who then can predict what the courts will do with those suits, or what the Treasury will do with whatever court orders it gets?

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  • Mike Ignatowski  On October 1, 2013 at 6:39 pm

    I want to offer two phrases that we should start using, and use often enough to get them engrained in the public conversation. (1) “The Tea Party Shutdown”, and (2) “America’s Health Care Law” (as opposed to obamacare). Go to it folks!


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