1. This is not a pox-on-both-your-houses situation. The Republicans planned this shutdown and carried it out.
Last Monday, on the eve of the shutdown, Rachel Maddow showed the tapes of one Republican candidate after another making campaign speeches about shutting down the government and being cheered for it. That never happens on the Democratic side. No Democratic candidate for Congress tells his crowds he’s going to shut down the government and expects to get a cheer. Rachel summarized:
What is happening tonight is happening tonight because this is what Republicans want to do. This is what they promised to do. … Elect Republicans and they will burn the place down and they will laugh while they do it and have a great time.
The Daily Beast’s David Freedlander talked to a number of Republican donors from the banking industry, who said Rep. Walden (chair of the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, which wants their money) told them “We have to do this because of the Tea Party.” (An NRCC spokesman denies Walden said that.)
Jonathan Chait traces the Republicans’ post-2012-defeat strategy to a meeting in January.
If you want to grasp why Republicans are careening toward a potential federal government shutdown, and possibly toward provoking a sovereign debt crisis after that, you need to understand that this is the inevitable product of a conscious party strategy. Just as Republicans responded to their 2008 defeat by moving farther right, they responded to the 2012 defeat by moving right yet again. Since they had begun from a position of total opposition to the entire Obama agenda, the newer rightward lurch took the form of trying to wrest concessions from Obama by provoking a series of crises.
The first element of the strategy is a kind of legislative strike. Initially, House Republicans decided to boycott all direct negotiations with President Obama, and then subsequently extended that boycott to negotiations with the Democratic Senate. (Senate Democrats have spent months pleading with House Republicans to negotiate with them, to no avail.) This kind of refusal to even enter negotiations is highly unusual. The way to make sense of it is that Republicans have planned since January to force Obama to accede to large chunks of the Republican agenda, without Republicans having to offer any policy concessions of their own.
2. This “budget” showdown has nothing to do with the budget. Both sides agree on the spending number that should be in the continuing resolution.
That’s because Democrats agreed to the Republicans’ number. In other words, the only genuine concession in this process has come from the Democrats. John Boehner could have taken that concession, passed a continuing resolution to avoid the shutdown, and then called a press conference to declare victory. Instead he shut down the government.
3. The threat not to raise the debt ceiling is unprecedented, except for when these same Republicans made the same threat in 2011.
Posturing about the debt ceiling is perennial: “Look how profligate the party in power is. They’ve run up so much debt we have to raise the ceiling.” But making a credible threat not to raise the debt ceiling unless your legislative demands are met? No. That is an absolutely new tactic in American politics.
Slate’s David Weigel goes through all the alleged examples of the Democrats threatening the debt ceiling. In 1981, Tip O’Neil tried to get President Reagan to promise that Republicans wouldn’t use a debt-ceiling vote against incumbent Democrats in the next election cycle (i.e., no policy demands), but passed it in plenty of time. In 1984, a Democratic committee chair blocked a debt ceiling bill for one day, seeking defense spending cuts. He was roundly criticized for “brinksmanship” and backed down.
That’s it. Dozens of other times Democratic majorities in Congress have passed debt-ceiling increases proposed by Republican presidents without making an issue of it.
If Democrats accepted the tactic Republicans are using, the September, 2007 debt-ceiling increase would have been an opportunity for Nancy Pelosi to demand deficit-reducing changes like a repeal of the Bush tax cuts or an end to Iraq War. But that didn’t happen, because Democrats don’t operate by extortion.
4. Republicans have redefined he words negotiate and compromise.
ThinkProgress’ Judd Legum summed up the Republican “negotiation”:
Can I burn down your house?
Just the 2nd floor?
Let’s talk about what I can burn down.
YOU AREN’T COMPROMISING!
In a real compromise, both sides give something and both sides get something. So far, the Democrats have been offered nothing.
In the 2011 crisis, President Obama repeatedly tried to negotiate a “grand bargain” with Speaker Boehner that would knock trillions off the long-term deficit. That failed, and the “supercommitte” negotiations that were supposed to replace the sequester failed, on the same point: Republicans insisted there could be no tax increases in the deficit reduction plan. Zero. During one Republican presidential debate, the candidates were asked whether they would accept a 10-to-1 ratio of spending cuts to tax increases. All said no.
Since April, Harry Reid has been trying to form a conference committee so that the House and Senate can work out a budget compromise. The Republicans have refused to appoint their conferees, preferring to wait until they had the “leverage” of a government shutdown and debt default. The point here is exactly what Chait said above: to extort concessions out of the Democrats without offering any concessions of their own. “OK then, half the ransom” is not a concession, no matter what Ted Cruz says.
5. The principle at stake is majority rule.
I talked about this in detail last week. Speaker Boehner wants to tell the story that the shutdown represents a disagreement between two branches of government that have conflicting popular mandates: The public elected President Obama, but it also elected a Republican House of Representatives.
That’s not what this is about at all. If it were, Boehner could bring the Senate’s clean continuing resolution to the House floor for a vote and defeat it. He can’t do that, because given the chance the people’s representatives would pass it. In blocking that resolution, Boehner does not represent the majority of the House, he only represents “the majority of the majority”, i.e. a minority.
The entire give-us-what-we-want-or-we’ll-burn-the-house-down strategy is against all American ideals of democracy. The constitutional way to pass a law (or repeal a law you don’t like) is to do what the Democrats did to pass ObamaCare in the first place: Win not just a majority in the House, but also a substantial majority in the Senate (to overcome a filibuster, which the Founders never envisioned), and win the White House (to avoid a veto). The Republicans can’t do that, because they are a minority. (Even their House candidates collectively got a million fewer votes than the Democrats in 2012.)
6. Don’t believe the leak that John Boehner won’t allow a debt-ceiling default.
Thursday the NYT quoted multiple anonymous Republican congressmen saying that Boehner had told them he wouldn’t allow a default. But Matt Yglesias points out that Boehner has been saying such things all along, while also saying the opposite.
Boehner’s position, dating back to 2011, has been twofold. On the one hand he says that failing to raise the debt ceiling would be catastrophic and that he favors avoiding catastrophe. On the other hand he says that he requires unrelated public policy concessions in order to agree to a measure that he himself says he supports.
It is, in other words, the classic suicide hostage strategy: Do what I want or I’ll detonate the bomb strapped to my chest. This has always been Boehner’s position.
For example, on Friday Boehner said:
I don’t believe that we should default on our debt. It’s not good for our country. But after 55 years of spending more than what you bring in, something ought to be addressed. I think the American people expect if we’re going to raise the amount of money we can borrow, we ought to do something about our spending problem and the lack of economic growth in our country.
In other words, he wants concessions. And notice: Boehner doesn’t suggest doing something about the deficit, which has a revenue side. He only wants to discuss “our spending problem”. So he’s seeking spending cuts with no tax increases, the same no-compromise position that doomed the budget negotiations in 2011.
And then Sunday he reiterated:
STEPHANOPOULOS: So under no circumstances will you pass a clean debt limit?
BOEHNER: We’re not going down that path.
Stephanopoulos’ question: “So you sit down with the president. What would you offer him in that conversation?” got no answer. And when pushed on the tax issue Boehner said: “Very simple. We’re not raising taxes.”
He described Harry Reid’s proposal to negotiate about the budget after the shutdown and debt ceiling had been dealt with as
My way or the highway. That’s what he’s saying. Complete surrender and then we’ll talk to you.
So he wants concessions and won’t give anything in return. Without his extortion demand, he has nothing to talk about, so giving it up is “complete surrender”.
7. The clearest head in the room belongs to Elizabeth Warren.
The boogeyman government is like the Boogyman under the bed. It’s not real. It doesn’t exist. What is real, what does exist are all those specific important things that we as Americans have chosen to do together through our government. In our democracy, government is not some make-believe thing that has an independent will of its own. In our democracy, government is just how we describe the things that We the People have already decided to do together.