One spring morning you’re sitting at an outdoor café eating brunch. A man runs up to you, points at your pancakes and says “I want that!” You decline. Then he walks into the middle of the street, stepping into the path of an onrushing truck. “Hey!” you say, “get out of the street!” “No sir,” he replies. “I will not. Not until you give me your pancakes.”
That, you think to yourself, is a novel strategy, courting personal disaster to try and get someone else to do what you want. It’s the kind of thing you might expect to see on “Celebrity Rehab” or maybe a classic episode of Jerry Springer. As it turns out, there’s another place you can find it too: the Republican caucus on Capitol Hill.
Take House Speaker John Boehner. Last week he went to Wall Street to say that the only way
Republicans would vote to raise the debt ceiling is if Democrats first agree to “trillions in cuts.” Later that week Boehner’s counterpart in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, issued his own debt ceiling demands, including “sharp cuts in both agency and entitlement spending.” Their posture: cut spending to the levels we want or else we won’t vote to raise the debt ceiling.
Of course, everyone from Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce agrees that not raising the debt ceiling will cause a global economic meltdown. So you might think Republican “threats” to be the party that takes down the economy wouldn’t be a particularly effective way to move Democrats. But it’s proving to be.
The most obvious reason, of course, is that most people don’t understand why the debt ceiling needs to be raised and, in fact, think it shouldn’t be. Republicans, instead of doing the hard work of explaining to the American people the consequences of not raising the debt ceiling, are instead feeding their doubts and leveraging them.
That has a tasty upside for the GOP: it effectively dumps the debt ceiling into Democratic laps: I, Republican, demand this (deep spending cuts) in exchange for giving you, Democrat, what you want (raising the debt ceiling). Take this clever bit of word play delivered by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan on Monday: “For every dollar the president wants to raise the debt ceiling, we can show him plenty of ways to cut far more than a dollar’s worth of spending.” Oh I see. Raising the debt ceiling is optional. It’s the president’s idea. And we wouldn’t have to do it if only he was as committed to cutting spending as we are.
A terrific messaging strategy, though one almost entirely divorced from the truth.
First, it bears repeating that the debt ceiling is actually a congressional creation. The decision whether to raise it or not doesn’t come at the election of the president, the Democrats, or just about anyone else. When we hit the debt ceiling, Congress decides what to do and that’s a requirement Congress has imposed on itself.
Second, none of the Republican demands—cut spending, raise no taxes--will stop us from having to raise the debt ceiling now, nor do much to decrease the likelihood that we will have to do it again. According to an analysis conducted by the Washington Post, spending increases (both defense and domestic) “account for only about 15 percent” of the increase in national debt. Its “Bush era policies” that are responsible for “$7 trillion” of the “$12.7 trillion swing from projected [Clinton-era] surpluses to real debt.” The prime driver? Bush tax cuts.
So...Republicans are principally responsible for our skyrocketing debt, they know that not raising the debt ceiling courts disaster and their demands have nothing to do with making disaster less likely. What’s this really all about? What it’s always about: finding clever ways to cut programs that fail to comport with the Republican idea of what government should do. As House Majority Leader Eric Cantor let slip the other day “...we want to be there with a safety net for people who need it. But what we’ve seen over the years is a country that has turned much more into an entitlement country for people who don’t need it. That’s the fundamental question here.” And to be clear, when he talks about help for people who don’t need it he’s not talking about oil subsidies. Head Start is more like it.
Under these circumstances it might be tempting to call the Republican bluff. I mean, if you really want to get hit by a truck...
Of course, that’s the problem with the truck analogy. Because in reality we’re all tethered together and if the truck hits the Republicans, we get run over too. In fact, as the negotiations drag on, that’s what they’re counting on.