The debt ceiling fight: What we learned
Assuming leaders in the House and Senate can wrangle majority support for the debt ceiling deal they cut with the White House on Sunday, it appears as though the debate that has consumed Congress — and the political class — for the better part of this year is, finally, over.
Looking back, there are several lessons to be learned for both parties going forward. A few of those lessons are below. If you’ve got lessons learned of your own, use the comments section to offer them.
* Home field advantage matters: The turf on which any battle or game is being fought matters. It’s true in war, sports and politics. The debt ceiling debate proved that once again as Republicans took advantage of the fact that on matters of spending, debt and the size of government there is an innate sense among the electorate that the GOP is better equipped to make the right decisions. Republicans knew from the start that they started from a position of relative strength because of those general perceptions and, as a result, were willing to push harder and stick closer to their original negotiating position.
* Mismatched stakes = mismatched result s: Democrats feared default far more than Republicans did. Democratic Members of Congress, almost to a person, saw default as the first step of an international econonomic catastrophe with wide-ranging consequences for the country. There was a significant faction of congressional Republicans who, well, didn’t. Republicans knew that Democrats wouldn’t ultimately accept default as an outcome while Democrats couldn’t say the same of Republicans. The stakes of the debt ceiling fight were decidedly mismatched, a fact that virtually ensured that the final deal would be more slanted to the GOP.
* Presidents are pragmatists: The idea that Obama wouldn’t ultimately cut some sort of deal was a misread of the role of the presidency when it comes to these sort of high-profile showdowns. Nine times out of ten, a president will choose the pragmatic rather than the ideological approach when the pressure is on. Why? Because the baseline expectation that most people (read: voters) have of the chief executive is to keep the trains running on time. Failure to do so carries huge political risks. On the rare occasion that a president picks up his ball and goes home — Bill Clinton during the 1995/1996 government shutdown — it’s because they see a direct path toward political victory in doing so. That wasn’t the case here and so Obama took the pragmatic path.
* Nancy Pelosi=relevant: Talk that Pelosi was largely irrelevant in the debt ceiling fight misses the mark in one significant way. She was able to keep her Democratic caucus entirely unified against House Speaker John Boehner’s compromise bill on the debt ceiling, forcing him to first postpone a vote and then cobble together a majority by adding conservative candy that made the bill even less palatable as a middle ground. Then Pelosi made another power play, this one with the White House as she refused to say on Sunday whether or not she could deliver the necessary Democratic votes for the compromise. Message(s) sent.
* Kicking the can (still) works: While Obama and congressional leaders will undoubtedly tout their willingness to address the nation’s debt problems in a serious way once (if?) this compromise deal goes through the House and Senate, it’s clear with the creation of the super committee that they have kicked some of the toughest — and least politically popular — decisions down the road. Cutting Medicare and defense spending, if it ultimately comes to that, less than a year before the 2012 election will be a true “face the music” moment. Will Congress and the White House blink?
* This is the beginning, not the end: What the debt ceiling fight amounted to was the first major skirmish of the 2012 election. It’s now obvious just how differently the two parties see the way forward when it comes to healing the economy. That’s a good thing for voters since the choice in 2012 will be crystal clear. How big should the government be? What should it do/not do? What’s the best way to kickstart the economy? The two parties have markedly different answers to each of those questions, answers that were fleshed out to some degree during the debt ceiling debate. The work of the next 15 months for the two parties will be to further explain to voters where they stand and why they’re right.