October 9, 2013

Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan have both published new articles that add up to a kind of closing argument against the White House as the crisis hits a climax. Both are usefully revealing. By eliding the core disagreement driving this standoff, both reveal just how weak the GOP case really is, in a manner only the most determined “both sides to blame” commentator could fail to appreciate.

Cantor’s piece describes the standoff as a “clarifying moment of Washington dysfunction.” He’s right. But it isn’t clarifying in the manner he claims it is.

Cantor’s and Ryan’s pieces call for Obama to negotiate with Republicans on entitlements and spending as a route to resolving the current crisis. Says Cantor: “The president not only has refused to negotiate on issues of debt and spending but also has mocked the very idea of engaging with Congress.” Cantor’s statement is false. Obama and Republicans don’t disagree over the need to negotiate on these issues. They disagree over the conditions under which these negotiations should proceed.

Dems want Republicans to agree to reopen the government at sequester levels, and to avert the threat of default, before entering into these negotiations. They don’t believe the threat of widespread harm to the country should give Republicans unilateral leverage in those negotiations — not just because it will be used to force unilateral concessions from Dems, but because it will legitimize such tactics as conventional Washington negotiating tools and make default, and immense damage to the country, more likely later.

By contrast, Republicans will only agree to have these negotiations in a context where a government shutdown and the threat of default do give them that added leverage. This is an objective statement of the GOP position. Dems have offered Republicans the negotiations they want, once those conditions are lifted. Republicans have refused. Therefore, their position is that conditions which continue to threaten widespread destruction, giving them leverage, must remain for any talks to proceed.

The key tell is that Cantor and Ryan don’t directly defend this position. They elide it. To be sure, both repeat the claim there have been negotiations attached to debt ceiling hikes in the past. But as Jonathan Chait explains, that isn’t the same as dangling the actual threat of default and untold economic havoc as a way to extract massive one-sided concessions. Republicans cannot defend this tactic because they will not acknowledge they are actually employing it. John Boehner already allowed in March that the debt ceiling will and must be raised, because: “I’m not going to risk the full faith and credit of the federal government.” But on ABC on Sunday, when Boehner was pressed on whether he’d actually allow default if Dems didn’t give him what he wants, he repeatedly fudged, saying he would not allow a vote on a “clean” debt limit bill. What happens if default is the only other option? We just don’t know.

Either Republicans are actually prepared to allow default and to use this frightening prospect as a weapon with which to get what they want, in which case such tactics cannot be rewarded, because they will all but ensure extensive destruction later. Or Republicans are not prepared to allow default, in which case the very notion that they have leverage here is a sham. Republicans are trying to use this ambiguity to their advantage. On the one hand, the uncertainty it creates is supposed to force Dems to give in to their demands. On the other, it is meant to obscure their actual intentions and thus shield them from politically potent charges that they are actually willing to place the country at grave risk to extract concessions they couldn’t get through conventional channels.

Democrats are refusing to govern within these parameters. Republicans won’t agree to enter into the normal give and take of governing outside of these parameters. This core difference is the true cause of all the “Washington dysfunction,” and once it is understood as such, this truly is a “clarifying moment.”

* BOEHNER’S SPEAKERSHIP IS AT RISK: Adding to the above: By clinging to the idea that the threat of default gives Republicans leverage, the Speaker has only reinforced a Tea Party view of the current standoff that makes any resolution to it harder. Politico’s big piece on John Boehner’s endgame contains this crucial nugget:

Boehner’s speakership now hinges on whether he can somehow emerge from the  showdowns over funding the government and raising the debt limit with some  victory in hand and without a capitulation to Obama and Hill Democrats.

But it is the very definition of letting go of this leverage as “capitulation” that is the crux of the problem. Agreeing to fund the government at sequester levels and to avert default do not amount to “capitulation” by Boehner. He wants both those outcomes. Yet by keeping Tea Party expectations of “victory” inflated, Boehner has ensured that conservatives will see them as surrender.

* BOEHNER LAMENTS “UNCONDITIONAL SURRENDER”: Indeed, Boehner himself, at his brief press conference yesterday, reinforced this frame:

“What the president said today was, if there is unconditional surrender by Republicans, he’ll sit down and talk to us. That’s not the way our government works.”

Agreeing to fund the government at sequester levels, which Republicans themselves say is a victory, and agreeing to avert default, which Boehner himself says must happen for the good of the country, do not amount to “unconditional surrender.”

* DEM ALLIES LAUNCH ADS HITTING “TEA PARTY SHUTDOWN”: The Dem-allied Americans United for Change is going up with ads in the districts of 10 vulnerable House Republicans, hitting them with a message that heavily emphasizes the economic toll of the shutdown and urges them to break with the Tea Party radicalism that’s created the crisis. Here’s the version targeting Rep. Tom Latham:

The campaign, which the group describes as a “significant buy” that will run into next week, suggests outside groups will get more engaged in pressuring “moderate” Republicans to demand a vote from GOP leaders on a “clean CR” funding the government, which could pass right now if they’d only let it.

* ANOTHER POLL SHOWS GOP TAKING SHUTDOWN BLAME: A new Associated Press poll finds that 62 percent of Americans mostly blame Republicans for the government shutdown. This is interesting:

Fifty-two percent said Obama is not doing enough to cooperate with  Republicans to end the shutdown; 63 percent say Republicans aren’t doing enough  to cooperate with him. Republicans are split on just how much cooperation they want. Among those  who do not back the tea party, fully 48 percent say their party should be doing  more with Obama to find a solution. But only 15 percent of tea-party Republicans want that outreach.

That last finding says it all. This is an online poll, so take that into account, but it does dovetail with other surveys we’ve seen.

* OBAMA OFFERS BOEHNER A WAY OUT: Sean Sullivan makes a good point here. By agreeing to negotiate if the GOP passes short term measures funding the government and raising the debt limit, Obama gave Boehner an exit strategy:

If Boehner were to agree to a very short-term — say, six to eight weeks — debt ceiling extension and government funding bill, he could sell it to his conference as a chance to get Democrats to the negotiating table on health-care and spending. And in short order, Republicans would have some leverage once again, as yet another shutdown would be triggered without a deal and the risk of default would be resurrected without another debt ceiling increase. Would it be easy to sell that plan to conservatives committed to gaining concessions from Democrats now? No. It would be difficult.

And again, this is because Boehner has acquiesced to the Tea Party’s definition of what constitutes “surrender.” If he hadn’t, he could plausibly spin sequester level spending — and forcing Dems to the table — as victories.

* DEFAULT DENIERS TRIP UP GOP PLANS: Steve Benen takes stock of the rise of the default deniers, and asks a very good question:

Let’s say the default deniers are right. They’re not, but let’s just say they are for the sake of conversation, and the consequences of the United States ignoring its financial obligations would be minor. If that’s true, why should President Obama and congressional Democrats pay a steep ransom to let the hostage go?

I’d only add this: Worse than the default deniers are Republicans who agree default will lead to widespread destruction, yet use this as leverage anyway.

 * OBAMA NOMINATES JANET YELLEN: Zachary Goldfarb reports on the backstory. This shows that, even if it’s true that the White House does not react well to getting pushed hard from the left, it can sometimes bear fruit.

* AND A QUICK NOTE TO PLUM LINERS: I’m happy to announce that Ryan Cooper, who blogs and reports on a wide array of topics over at his Washington Monthly gig, is set to start contributing to this blog this week. Look for his first post as early as today!

What else?

RELATED: Members of Congress who insist on collecting their shutdown pay

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