A Debt Ceiling History Lesson

This time, the debt ceiling debate really is different.


Former Treasury Secretary James Baker and former President Ronald Reagan.

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And while the idea of deliberately not passing a debt ceiling increase traces back to Gingrich, even during the 1995-1996 confrontation the situation was well on its way to being defused weeks, not days or hours, ahead of the moment of crisis. "It was never down to the wire in the same way, which really changes the dynamic quite entirely," Wallach says. Now everything in Washington is handled at the last minute.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the government shutdown.]

And the stakes have changed too. There used to be an asymmetric quality to the debt ceiling add-ons; they weren't, as Wallach says, worth going to the mat over. Now Republicans want to give President Obama a choice between unacceptable budget cuts (or, perhaps, scrapping his signature legislative accomplishment) or crashing the economy. It's another sign of how Washington has transformed from a go-along-to-get-along deal-making culture to one of endless, vituperative confrontation. It's no wonder President Obama is so anxious to quash this new style of debt ceiling confrontation. If you regularly wrestle on the edge of a cliff, you're eventually bound to tumble off.

"I didn't come here to shut down the government," Boehner told reporters Tuesday. "I certainly didn't come here to default on our debt." It was a chilling statement given that he was speaking in the middle of a shutdown of which he is the reluctant ringleader. Boehner may not plan on a default, but neither did he plan on the shutdown. And yet here we are.

  • Read Robert Schlesinger: Obama Adviser: Why the Debt Ceiling Deniers Have It All Wrong
  • Read Pat Garofalo: The Government Shutdown, the Salmonella Outbreak and Food Safety
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