Republican masters of spin are vowing to repeat the drama that we just went through every time the debt limit needs to be raised in the future, and a lot of observers are buying it (see, for example, the New York Times’ Michael Shear. My guess? There’s a lot less here than meets the eye.
First of all, no one expects a Republican Congress to demand any such thing from a Republican president in early 2013, if that’s what the 2012 elections give us. Well, it’s possible that the Republicans will do an immediate spending cuts package and tie it to the debt limit, but if for whatever reason they don’t want to do an immediate bill, they’ll just say that it’s not necessary to cut spending now that budget-cutters are officially in charge. Second, I think Kevin Drum is right that if we get a Republican president and a Democratic Congress, the issue won’t play nearly as well in reverse (although it’s certainly possible that President Romney or Perry could veto a clean limit increase and demand cuts – but would a brand-new president really want to risk that?). Of course, a unified Democratic government would not only probably pass a clean increase, but it also might well scrap the debt limit entirely, as Jonathan Chait suggests they demand in the future.
What if we have the status quo in January 2013? Hard to say. But it’s going to be a whole lot easier for Republicans to vote for a clean debt-limit increase at that point (perhaps loaded with some symbolic stuff). One of the key problems for Republicans this year is that they were just elected on a lot of extravagant promises about immediate, absolute change. My guess is that those who are reelected in 2012 won’t repeat those promises, at least not quite as loudly. They will have voted to raise the debt limit. They will have voted for appropriations bills that spend gazillions of dollars. They will have voted for budgets that don’t immediately balance. They may not own up to those things, and some of them will certainly keep up the rhetoric, but the bulk of them? We’ll see.
Moreover, should we have a status quo election in 2012, the incentive of defeating Barack Obama will, of course, be gone in 2013. Instead, members of Congress will be worrying about their own reelections, and triggering an economic crisis just after the president is inaugurated may not work well for that goal.
Remember, despite taking a big hit in the spin wars, Republicans got lots of what they wanted from Bill Clinton in the 1995-1996 budget showdown. But despite that, they didn’t spend the rest of the 1990s practicing the same brinkmanship. At some point, the odds are that this latest round of induced crises will end, too. Yes, someday we’ll have another hostage crisis similar to the one that just ended, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen all the time.