January 4, 2013

Obama and Dems have vowed not to negotiate with the GOP over the debt ceiling. This morning, I asked what “not negotiating” would look like in the real world, and whether it’s even possible. But another question may be even more relevant: Do Republicans really have the leverage in the debt ceiling fight they think they have?

Some Republicans are now coming out and acknowledging that the GOP may not be in a strong position in the debt ceiling battle, after all. Here’s Newt Gingrich, on Morning Joe today, telling Republicans that a debt ceiling fight is a “loser” for them:

“They’ve got to find, in the House, a totally new strategy. Everybody’s now talking about, ‘Oh, here comes the debt ceiling.’ I think that’s, frankly, a dead loser. Because in the end, you know it’s gonna happen. The whole national financial system is going to come in to Washington and on television, and say: ‘Oh my God, this will be a gigantic heart attack, the entire economy of the world will collapse. You guys will be held responsible.’ And they’ll cave.”

And here’s the Wall Street Journal editorial page, warning against it in similar terms:

Mr. Obama will say Republicans are risking national default and recession, most of Wall Street will echo him, and the Treasury will maneuver to apply maximum political pressure — for example, by claiming it can’t pay Social Security benefits. We’ll support efforts to cut spending and reform entitlements, but the political result will be far worse if Republicans start this fight only to cave in the end. You can’t take a hostage you aren’t prepared to shoot.

This gets right to the heart of the matter, which is this: Are Republicans really prepared to let the country go into default and take the blame for crashing the economy? Sure, maybe some Tea Party Republicans are, but if GOP leaders aren’t, and the next compromise can be passed through the House with mostly Democratic votes, then all of a sudden the GOP position doesn’t look so strong, after all.

And so maybe the question of what “not negotiating” on the debt ceiling looks like has a simpler answer than you might think: The White House just treats this as Congress’ problem. You can see that framing already in this comment from the White House today (emphasis mine): “It is quite clear that the economy will be better if Congress does its job and does what it routinely has done historically which is raise the debt limit without problem.” 

It’s true that in one way, the White House will inevitably be negotiating on the debt ceiling, in the sense that it will be engaged in talks over the sequester, tax reform, and spending cuts that Republicans will insist must be resolved before they agree to raise it. But as Ezra Klein notes, this doesn’t necessarily mean the White House has to be held hostage over the debt ceiling, and it’s really quite possible that in the end, Republicans will opt to agree to a somewhat balanced deal rather than risk taking the blame for cratering the economy.

After all, John Boehner is already on record saying that not raising the debt ceiling will cause financial disaster. The pressure on Republicans not to let this happen will be intense. For the GOP, blowing up the economy will mean nothing short of political Armageddon. Can you name a single prominent Republican in any position of influence who is willing to say the GOP should allow the country to default, rather than accept a deal that doesn’t gut entitlements?

I understand the pessimism on the left that the White House will ultimately give away too much. But things seem to be shifting: Now even prominent Republicans are giving away the game, admitting that the GOP doesn’t have the leverage here that it claims to have.

This is on Congress. If Republicans are willing to force a choice between destroying the economy and gutting popular social programs, let them wallow in that winning message. If they’re willing to tank the economy to get what they want — after taking a shellacking in the election and proving so dysfunctional that they could not pass tax cuts for everyone but the ultra-wealthy without substantial Democratic help — then it’s on them. Just leave it there.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.