The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

GOP debt limit extortion is dead

So House Republican leaders are bowing to the inevitable and are going to allow a vote on a clean debt limit hike. In a statement moments ago, Nancy Pelosi said she’d provide Democratic votes to help it pass, which seems very likely.

The crucial point about this outcome, should it happen, is that it will be the direct result of the decision by Dems — in the last two debt limit fights — to refuse to negotiate with Republicans. That was a major course correction on Obama’s part in which he learned in office from failure. After getting badly burned in the 2011 debt limit showdown — which left us saddled with the austerity that continues to hold back the recovery — Obama recognized what many of his supporters were pleading with him for years to recognize: There was no way to enter into a conventional negotiation with House Republicans.

Now that this realization has driven Dem strategy through two debt limit fights, it may not be too soon to pronounce GOP debt limit extortion dead.

“The era of economic hostage taking and ransom demands should finally be behind us,” Senator Patty Murray told me today. “House GOP leaders have finally bowed to the reality that they need to put uncertainty and drama behind them and put the economy ahead of their party’s political tactics.” Also, as Jonathan Bernstein notes, this reflects a GOP recognition that the Tea Party must be marginalized, not placated.

Obama has been widely faulted for failing to bend Congress to his will through persuasion and LBJ-style logrolling. But that criticism failed to account for the structural factors that render the current situation unconventional, such as population distribution patterns and redistricting that cossetted away House Republicans in safe districts, insulated from broader currents of national opinion and/or party brand problems, and other incentives for refusing any cooperation with Obama, such as the promise of plaudits from the Conservative Entertainment Complex.

Recognition of these fundamentals was a prerequisite to getting Dems to deal effectively with the true nature of the House GOP debt limit extortion. Way back in December 2012, when Obama first announced there would be no more negotiations over the debt limit, it was plainly apparent that this recognition was what was driving Dems. What many failed to appreciate was that Dems had no choice other than to refuse to negotiate, because, with a conventional negotiation impossible, making concessions under those conditions would inevitably lead to another ransom demand later, making default and disaster more likely.

This pattern simply had to be broken for Obama’s second term to have any chance of succeeding. The key insight among Dems was that, even if a sizable bloc of House Republicans would never support a clean debt limit hike no matter what, due to the above structural factors, the GOP leadership could be compelled to allow one to pass with a lot of Dems if the political price of not doing so grew too high.

That’s what happened the first time Republicans caved on the debt limit in early 2013, and again this fall, after the government shutdown fiasco. Indeed, Dems held the line that second time explicitly because they calculated that forcing capitulation at that point would ensure that Republicans would not seriously stage a third showdown, since doing so in 2014 would extract too high a political price, effectively ending debt limit extortion for good.

All of this also required a concerted effort to break the hold on Republicans of the idea that the American people hated the Obama agenda — and the health law in particular — so much that they’d rise up in support of whatever tactics Republicans used to undermine it. That didn’t happen — public opinion turned sharply on Republicans during the shutdown fight, which appeared to genuinely shock many lawmakers — in part because whatever the unpopularity of Obamacare, there was never majority support for scorched earth tactics against it.

What’s next? The dream among Dems has long been that if the price of total obstruction became too high, enough Republicans could be coaxed off to split from the Tea Party and join Dems in coming together on proposals that would probably have majority support in Congress, such as a budget deal, immigration reform and infrastructure repair to create jobs.

“Now as a country we have the opportunity to focus on jobs and the challenges that workers and families are dealing with every day,” Murray tells me. “That will be good for the country.”

Of course, working against this is Obamacare’s disastrous rollout, which allowed the GOP to rebound post-shutdown and deepened the certainty among Republicans that they can win this fall only on the law’s problems, which makes it less likely that they’ll risk moving on other fronts. But it seems very plausible that we won’t see any more debt limit crises, which alone would be a victory for sane governing.