Was the debt standoff American politics at its best, or worst?

October 17, 2013
By the dawn's early light, etc. etc. (Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)
By the dawn's early light, etc., etc. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

With a hat tip to George Packer's summer New Yorker piece "Two Minds on Syria," we now bring you a debate between Neil Irwin and Neil Irwin on what lessons a person should draw from the shutdown and debt limit standoff. Irwin argues it is a sign of how broken American democracy is, and how our system is not up to the challenges of a modern age. Irwin, by contrast, sees in the resolution of the standoff evidence of the hidden resilience of America's political system. Their dialogue follows:

Ugh.

Huh?

It's just disgusting. We've had the government shutdown for more than two weeks. Hundreds of thousands of workers sitting at home. The financial markets on a hair-trigger. All for what? A deal to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling that pretty much maintains the status quo exante. So, we get to do this all over again in the middle of winter. That's only three months away! This whole experience just shows that the American political system was built for a different age.

Whoah, now. Settle down. You are almost completely, 180 degrees wrong. Not about the fact that this whole episode has been a mess. Of course it has. No way to run the world's greatest superpower and all that. But we just saw a political system that's working great, not one that's breaking apart.

Are you high?

Just stay with me a bit. Here's what's happened in the last few years: A president won a landslide election just as the economy was collapsing. He and his party pushed through a controversial health-care law, attaining what has been a goal of the political left since Roosevelt's time, by extending health care to (more or less) all Americans. 

So far so good. I'll refrain from making a joke about the Obamacare Web site's disastrous roll-out.

Thanks for that. Okay, so the opposition party thinks this is a terrible, terrible idea that will doom the republic. I happen to think that's crazy, but a large portion of voters believed and still believe that, enough that they won the House of Representatives in 2010 and held it in 2012. They won those seats promising their constituents, clear as day, that they would do everything in their power to defeat Obamacare and not be co-opted by the old ways of Washington.

That's accurate as far as it goes, though I might note that in 2012 almost half a million more Americans voted for Democratic House candidates than Republicans, and it was thanks to gerrymandered district boundaries that they won a majority of house seats with a minority of the votes. Not exactly a triumph of democracy.

But that's exactly it! This was a triumph of democracy! Yes, the House Republicans shut down the government. Yes, they threatened a debt ceiling breach. But President Obama and Senate Democrats held firm. Public opinion swung decisively against the GOP. And now Republicans have voted for a compromise that doesn't really compromise anything of substance but will keep the government open for another few months.

Isn't that a little like saying: "That horrible bus accident was really good news. Only 19 people got severely injured, and nobody died?"

Look, there's no question this episode has been damaging, both for individual Americans who have been temporarily unemployed, and for America's standing around the world. But as ugly as it has been, this is a moment where the center held. The grown-ups of the Republican Party, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner, said, "Enough!" It's hard to know for sure just now, but I suspect the whole episode has been damaging enough that they'll come into the next standoff, in January and February, with a different understanding of the costs and risks of extreme tactics.

So, you're saying this is a victory if, and only if, the blowback against Republicans has been strong enough that they will never use these tactics again? And how do we know this won't happen again? The fact that we keep getting near to the cliff seems like it increases the chances that one day, sooner or later, we're going to go over it. Three years ago, no one knew what the "debt ceiling" is. Now fighting over it is a biannual tradition. It's been normalized. That's dangerous.

Well, even if this happens again, we now have an even clearer precedent for how the majority party should react. Never again will a president emulate Barack Obama circa July 2011 and allow a debt ceiling threat become negotiating leverage for a major deficit reduction deal. Instead, future presidents will emulate Barack Obama circa October 2013 and hold a firm line. And that way the constitutional order will be preserved: the idea that to get your way on policy, you have to win elections.

If that counts as a victory for good governance, I'd sure hate to see defeat. This seems to rely on endless games of chicken between minorities and majorities. And there's no saying that strategy will work every time. What if Republicans win the 2014 midterm elections and try again, this time with more popular backing? It's totally plausible to imagine Obama holding to his no-negotiations posture and disaster results.

Look, democracy is hard. Turning the incoherent, inchoate will of hundreds of millions of people into quality governance isn't easy. Japan has been through more governments in the last decade than I can count. Belgium recently went a year and a half without a functioning government at all. Italy, well, don't get me started on Italy. America's Constitution is messy. But through the last 200-something years, our democracy has seen greater challenges than the tea party crowd and survived.

U-S-A! U-S-A! Just kidding. I think I'm going to get a stiff drink.

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