Members Only | January 19, 2023 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

On the debt ceiling, the Democrats are the party of no

The Republicans, meanwhile, pretend to possess leverage.


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The Republicans seem ready to reelect Ronna (Romney) McDaniel as head of the Republican National Committee. The Wall Street Journal said Monday that party elites hope to place a rival in the position she’s filled since Donald Trump appointed her in 2016. But, in a vote to be held next week, Mitt Romney’s niece remains favored to win. 

That could suggest that the criminal former president’s influence over the Republicans is as strong as ever. It could also suggest something more obvious – namely, the Republicans’ inability or unwillingness to learn from failure. McDaniel is running for a fourth term after three elections that most say were lost to the Democrats.

I don’t mean to overstate the importance of the RNC leader, but McDaniel does symbolize, I think, the triumph of hubris over experience. Despite repeated losses, the GOP appears to believe that they need to keep doing what they’ve been doing. They appear to believe that doing what they’ve always done will give them leverage.

Every time Donald Trump thinks he and the Republicans have an advantage over the Democrats, their fortunes collide with calamity. But this time, it won’t be a calamity for them alone.

On January 9, Donald Trump said the House Republicans shouldn’t budge on the debt ceiling. (That’s the cap on the amount of money the US government can borrow. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said the government will likely reach that threshold at some point today.) 

Trump said that the House Republicans should play “tough.” He said that standing firm on the debt ceiling would reverse “almost everything” that Joe Biden and the Democrats have accomplished.

It would be, Trump said, “a beautiful and joyous thing.”

It would be an ugly and joyless thing.

Every time Donald Trump thinks he and the Republicans have an advantage over the Democrats, their fortunes collide with calamity. But this time, it won’t be a calamity for them alone. If the US defaults on its debt, which would be the result of failing to raise the debt ceiling, probably by June, here’s what would happen to the world.

Fifteen trillion dollars would go poofthph.

Doing what they’ve been doing is bad.

For everyone.

No, and no
Kevin McCarthy seems to understand that attempts at extortion – which are Trump’s forte – are not attempts at bargaining, in good faith or bad. The House speaker asked Tuesday to begin negotiations over a fiscal agenda in which the Democrats compromise on federal spending in exchange for the House GOP raising the debt ceiling. 

“I would like to sit down with all the leaders and especially the president and start having discussions,” said McCarthy Tuesday, adding that about six months remain before the US runs out of cash. (Yellen has enacted “extraordinary measures” to provide more time.)

No, the White House said.

“This is something that should be done without conditions,” Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said. “We’ve been very, very clear about that. We are not going to be negotiating over the debt ceiling.”

But wait! McCarthy said: “Let’s sit down and find a place where we can protect Medicare and Social Security for the future generations.”

I don’t like repeating myself, the White House said.

“Congressional Republicans are threatening to hold the nation’s full faith and credit — a mandate of the Constitution — hostage to their demands to cut Social Security, to cut Medicare and to cut Medicaid – brinkmanship that threatens the global economy,” Jean-Pierre said.

It was as if the president were saying to McCarthy that, “I know you think you have the advantage here, but listen, jack, you really don’t.

Speak for yourself, Mr. Speaker
If there were any doubt about Kevin McCarthy’s weakness after the 15 votes it took for him to become House speaker, there was not an echo of a shadow of doubt after Biden shut down his opening bid.

Matter of fact, that opening bid itself told the tale. If McCarthy had any real strength – say, a 40-plus majority – he’d be dictating the terms of negotiations. As it is, with a five-seat majority, he’s forced to ask if Biden would maybe perhaps kinda sorta consider talking to him.

McCarthy’s weakness provides an additional reason for the president to shut down his opening bid. If Biden were to enter into good-faith negotiations, how could he trust a bargaining partner who sold his institutional power as speaker to a grunt of Republican insurgents?

As it is, Biden’s incentive would be to throw McCarthy against the wall, forcing him to choose between seeing $15 trillion in global wealth going poofthph and turning to the Democrats to save him, infuriating the same mutts threatening to depose him posthaste.

“Who wants to put the nation through some type of threat at the last minute with the debt ceiling?” McCarthy said. “Nobody wants that.”

Speak for yourself, jack.

Acting without permission
It’s not clear to me, or clear to anyone, as far as I can tell, whether these Republicans are capable of adjusting to a political landscape in which they do not have, and likely never will, in the short term, anyway, the bargaining power they currently pretend to possess.

Adjusting would require acknowledging the authority of their lived experience (ie, losing), but acknowledging would require a level of humility the GOP has not demonstrated since no one remembers. 

The crazier they act, the more they drive away the respectable white people who are central to any majority. And the more they drive them away, the crazier they act. It’s a doom loop in which they believe doing what they’ve always done is the definition of sanity.

That doom loop has created conditions in which the president and the Democrats can do what they haven’t done in my lifetime, not since Richard Nixon was run out of town. They can set the terms. 

They can set the terms even in the unlikely event of the House Democrats refusing to save McCarthy from his grunt of insurgents. According to Professor Garrett Epps, the Constitution empowers Biden to pay government debts despite the GOP’s intransigence.

“The Constitution bars the federal government from defaulting on the debt — even a little, even for a short while,” Professor Epps wrote in November for the Washington Monthly. “There’s a case to be made that if Congress decides to default on the debt, the president has the power and the obligation to pay it without congressional permission, even if that requires borrowing more money to do so” (my italics).

The House GOP is unlikely to stop doing what they do.

Hopefully, on this issue, doing what they do goes poofthph.

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

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