May 24, 2023 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

On debt ceiling, moderate Democrats need to chill

Biden is doing better than they think.

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If I were a monger of conventional wisdom, I might say that the president is doing something right in negotiations over the debt ceiling with the House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. Joe Biden appears to be pissing off his own people.

According to this morning’s Post, numerous though unnamed Democrats who represent swing districts say that Biden is “putting Democrats in a terrible negotiating position and could be forced to eat most of McCarthy’s demands.” 

They point to “substandard messaging from the White House and the lack of visibility from the president, who was in Japan at the G-7 meeting for several days last week and has since not spoken publicly at length” about the issue.

The president understands, when he’s communicating with his party, that he’s speaking to more than one faction. You can say that his messaging is muddled. You can also say he knows his audience. 

I am, however, not a monger of conventional wisdom. 

I don’t know if pissing off moderate Democrats means that the president is doing something right. I do know these moderate Democrats are doing what they do. That includes giving the benefit of the doubt to the GOP view. The Republicans say Biden has been “MIA.” So moderate Democrats do, too. They know their supporters watch Fox. They can’t be seen on the other side of that.

Moderate Democrats do something else. 

They tend to demand top-down messaging from Democratic leaders. It works for the Republicans. It should work for the Democrats, too, right? What moderate Democrats don’t understand, however, is that the Republicans are illiberal while the Democrats are liberal (in a broad historical sense). Illiberals love top-down messaging. They need it. Liberals don’t need it. They resist it.

Moderate Democrats forget, or have never bothered to learn, that Republican illiberals are like sheep, Democratic liberals are like cats. One of these can be herded with ease. The other couldn’t be herded if their lives depended on it.

While I’m no monger of conventional wisdom, I do think negotiations are going better than moderate Democrats think they are. Biden understands, when he’s communicating with his party, that he’s speaking to more than one faction. You can say that his messaging is muddled. You can also say he knows his audience. 

As for being “forced to eat most of McCarthy’s demands,” these moderate Democrats seem to have missed two critical news items, almost certainly because these same new items did not get equal coverage by Fox. If a fact has not been covered equally by Fox, referring to it as a fact can seem tantamount to lying — if you get most of your information about politics from Fox. 

One of the critical news items is the new Democratic demand for balancing spending cuts and tax revenues.

The White House “put forward a proposal that includes $1 trillion in spending cuts, but as part of the same proposal, Democrats want” revenues, according to USA Today. They want to allow the Trump tax cuts on the very obscenely rich to expire. “Republicans have balked.”

The other is this: Biden now says that he has the authority to invoke the 14th amendment. That amendment says “the validity of the public debt of the United States … shall not be questioned,” not even, some argue, by the US House of Representatives.

On Sunday, the president “went further than he’s gone before by saying flatly that he believes the 14th amendment gives him the authority to bypass Congress and get around the debt ceiling,” per USA Today.

He also said that such a move would be litigated. Therefore, he said, it’s not useful for negotiations. Again, you can say that that’s “substandard messaging” or you can say that Biden is talking to more than one audience, including an audience that pays attention to, and is therefore misinformed by, Fox.

I don’t blame moderate Democrats for getting pissed about anything that the president does or doesn’t do. Everyone has problems, but theirs are more complex than most. I do blame them for misunderstanding their party – or worse, misrepresenting it. 

But even if Democratic liberals worked the same way as Republican illiberals, top-down messaging wouldn’t produce outcomes that moderate Democrats are demanding. Why?

Most people don’t know what the debt ceiling is. It’s a cap on borrowing to pay for things authorized by the Congress. It’s not a cap on spending. Most people think it is. Top-down might deepen the confusion. 

I could be wrong. Maybe Biden is doing something right by pissing off his own people. But I’m probably not wrong. Does that mean things are going to work out fine? If I thought that, I’d be a monger of conventional wisdom. I’m not.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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