With all indications that we’re hurtling towards another debt ceiling and government shutdown this fall, it’s worth stepping back and appreciating how different the political conditions are right now than they were back in 2011, when Dems made some serious missteps (perhaps understandably) that helped land us in today’s mess.
In 2011, Republicans had just won a massive midterm victory, after a period in which Dems had pushed through one major initiative after another. Right or wrong, Dems viewed their epic losses as a reflection of genuine public anxiety over liberal overreach and excessive spending, made more toxic and dangerous by deep anger over the economy. Obama seemed to have his back to the wall: default was simply not an option, since it could mean going into reelection amid a catastrophic downward economic spiral. The resulting debt ceiling deal, which brought us the Budget Control Act and the sequester, helped lock us into the wrong argument — over how much austerity to impose, not whether to impose any — that we’re still trapped in today.
This time things obviously are different. Obama and Dems won reelection comfortably, in a contest that was all about the proper size of government and its rightful role in defending Americans from economic harm and investing in long term middle class security. Republicans are deeply divided over fundamental questions about their party’s identity and about how far to push their opposition to Obama’s agenda, with many prominent voices calling on them to find a way to cooperate with Dems and articulate a positive role for government to play in people’s lives. Many analysts believe Republicans face serious long term demographic disadvantages that are only being exacerbated by such failings, which are alienating core groups among which they must improve relations. By contrast, Dems are relatively united behind a set of core governing priorities that appeal to groups that are growing as a share of the vote.
It isn’t 2011 anymore, but we’re facing another series of crises that are quite similar. Dems have a chance to do far better this time. Today’s jobs numbers only underscore the urgency of not capitulating to any more austerity demands, and make it all the more crucial that Dems push hard back to swing us back in the other direction.
On the debt ceiling, this means no negotiating, no matter what. The GOP demand for more spending cuts in exchange for a debt limit hike is a nonstarter — period. The defund-Obamacare campaign should be treated as the buffoonish con game that it is. When it comes to funding the government, the picture gets more complicated. Probably the best we can hope for, given current GOP dysfunction, is a short term funding of the government at current levels. But the long term is what matters. Dems must continue pushing hard to split off Republican Senators who seem inclined to try to compromise with Dems, and they must make sure that the demand for more stimulus spending — on infrastructure, for example — is part of those conversations, as unlikely as it seems that it will bear fruit. Dems must continue pushing for a long term replacement to the sequester that increases spending levels, replaces cuts partly with new revenues, and prioritizes job-creation and economic growth. This may seem futile but Dems should continue articulating these priorities as forcefully as they can while refusing to get drawn back into the austerity frame that has held sway for so long.
Obama and Dems have vowed to do all of the above, and there isn’t necessarily any reason to doubt that they will do so. It’s admittedly hard to know at this point, before we have a clearer picture of just how much of a mess the GOP position will be this fall, what the Dem budget strategy should look like in practice. But it’s worth reiterating that the coming battles offer a chance to make amends for some of the missteps of 2011 that still haunt us now. There’s a great deal of understandable pessimism and confusion out there about what’s coming next, and it’s very possible that if Dems do hold to a hard line, a shutdown and default will loom as very real possibilities. But Dems need to be ready to play serious hardball, even if the consequences appear very frightening indeed. The alternative is worse.