January 4, 2013

I noted earlier today that when it comes down to it, the White House should act as if the debt ceiling is not Obama’s problem, but Congress’ problem. If Congressional Republicans don’t want to raise the debt ceiling, it’s on them.

Walter Dellinger, the former solicitor general under Bill Clinton, emails me his take on why this is true on the substance, never mind the politics. It’s a good one:

I understand why the debt ceiling is a problem. What I don’t understand it why it’s Obama’s problem. The debts that will come due are the debts of the United States, not the debts of Obama family and not even the debts of the executive branch…

If the U.S. defaults on loan obligations because of failure to increase the debt ceiling, every single American would be made somewhat poorer by the dead weight loss to the American economy that this would cause. I don’t see why either political party or either branch of government should gain any leverage by threatening economic harm to the United States of America whose financial management is the mutual responsibility of each of them.

The whole thing reminds me of the great moment in “Blazing Saddles” when Sheriff Bart takes himself hostage by pointing a gun at his own head. The simple townsfolk of Rock Ridge were dumb enough to fall for it. Are we?

Yes, apparently we are. You can read through reams of reporting about the debt ceiling and not find anything that explains the most basic facts about the situation. It is widely being reported on as a conventional Washington standoff, in which Dems want a debt ceiling hike, Republicans want spending cuts, and we’re now going to see a game of chicken in which the two will meet somewhere in the middle. This bears no relationship to the reality of the situation, in which Republicans are pretending that in refusing to hike the debt ceiling, they are withholding a concession for which they should ultimately be rewarded. In reality they are demanding that Dems give them something in exchange for agreeing not to do immense damage to the whole country. As Dellinger’s email neatly demonstrates, the situation is profoundly absurd and unbalanced — yet this is completely lost in the business-as-usual coverage.

Fortunately, it’s becoming clearer that the White House and Democrats really don’t intend to play along. Chuck Schumer reiterated today that Dems will not negotiate around the debt ceiling. Harry Reid has privately told Obama that he will support it if the president utilizes a way to get around the debt ceiling that doesn’t involve Congress. While the President is unlikely to opt for that route, the support for it among Dems suggests they are in no mood to see any concessions made in response to GOP debt ceiling hostage taking.

The House GOP is dismissing the White House’s threat not to negotiate. A Boehner spokesman put it this way: “Wishful thinking is not a solution.” Good luck with this. As of today, Judd Gregg, Newt Gingrich, and the Wall Street Journal editorial board have already given up the game and made it clear that there’s no endgame for Republicans in this whole fight.

As Dellinger notes, this is no way to govern a country. I’m still not sure whether — or how — the White House will manage to stick to this approach throughout, but let’s hope so: If Republicans want to force a choice between gutting popular entitlements and destroying the economy, let them sink under it. This is their problem.

 

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