The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The White House doesn’t think it can prevent a government shutdown

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This is a good catch by the Wall Street Journal's Damian Paletta.

Back in 2011, the White House's line was that it was simply unthinkable that Republicans would let the government shutdown or the debt ceiling collapse. They wouldn't even entertain the possibility. They pointed to Republican leaders's admission that the debt ceiling would need to be raised. They pointed to Congress's long history of raising the debt ceiling without much fuss. They brushed off questions asking whether things had changed. It was like they were attempting a Jedi mind trick.

"Republicans won't raise the debt ceiling unless you offer huge concessions!"

"Yes, they will."

"Okay, yes, they will!"

Paletta notes that the White House isn't trying that trick this time. If anything, they're trying to convince the world that Republicans really, seriously, might pull the trigger. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew is using words like "nervous" and "anxious." David Plouffe is tweeting things like:


And there is a difference between 2011 and 2013. Two of them, in fact.

1) In 2011, the White House knew whom to deal with. Back then, House Speaker John Boehner actually did seem reasonably in sync with his party on these issues, and so the White House was able to negotiate with Republican leadership on a deal. Today, the relevant negotiations are happening in the Republican Party, with GOP leadership trying to fight conservatives who want to shut down the government, and no one knows who actually has the power to cut and close a deal.

2) In 2011, the White House was willing to deal. The White House believed, in its gut, that Republicans had been given a mandate in the 2010 elections to extract exactly the kind of concessions they were demanding. In addition, the White House believed President Obama would be a likelier bet for reelection if he could cut a "grand bargain" with the newly resurgent Republicans, taking their key issue away from them.

This year, it's the White House that won the last election, and so they see no popular legitimacy behind Republican demands. In addition, they are deeply, fervently committed to the proposition that they will never again negotiate around the debt ceiling, as that's a tactic history will judge them harshly for repeatedly enabling. So even if Boehner could cut a deal on the debt ceiling, the White House isn't open to negotiating.

All of which helps explain the White House's more alarmist communications strategy. In 2011, the White House was confident they could cut a deal with Republicans and, in some ways, eager to do so. That gave them a sense of control over the situation.

This year, they're not willing to cut a deal with the Republicans on the debt ceiling, and they're not sure the Republicans can cut a deal with themselves on funding the government, all of which means the White House doesn't have much control over this situation. That's why they're trying to worry business and Wall Street and other outside actors who could put pressure on the GOP.