Fire Next Time

As noted often here and among the more discerning observers for a good while, the “fiscal cliff” brouhaha was in part originally, and is far more now, a preliminary event leading up to the Big Apocalyptic Fight on store in late February or March (or who knows? perhaps a somewhat later date thanks to temporary “fixes” and extensions) when the Treasury runs out of ways to avoid the debt limit and both the temporary FY 2013 appropriations and the delay in “sequestrations” provided for in 2011 expire. Failure to get all those items wrapped up in a “fiscal cliff” deal is what (more than its “deficit impact” number or the failure to make spending cuts) transformed it from a “grand bargain” to simply a tax bill with some riders. And it’s the failure to use “fiscal cliff” pressure as leverage on the debt limit that has a lot of progressives angry at Obama and/or Senate Democrats for the deal they did cut, just as a lot of conservatives are furious at congressional Republicans for not finding a way to use debt limit obstruction threats to secure a better resolution of the tax fight.

So the supposed moment of bipartisan satori that supposedly culminated with the House’s action last night has increased the already formidable sentiment within both parties to make the upcoming confrontation One for the Ages. I would guess that by sundown today about 95% of the Republicans in both Houses who voted for the “cliff” bill will have made public statements swearing bloody vengeance on the Welfare State in exchange for an increase in the debt limit. And even before the deal was sealed in the Senate, the president was already vowing not to make the concessions Republicans will demand. The rhetoric will only escalate from there.

TNR’s Noam Scheiber probably reflects the current views of a majority of progressives in expressing less than total confidence in the president in this next war of nerves and threats and hostage-taking:

[I]f there’s one thing we learned in 2011, it’s that Obama fears the consequences of not raising the debt limit more than the GOP leadership, to say nothing of the GOP rank and file. McConnell will assume that if Obama coughed up concessions to cut a deal even when he wasn’t especially anxious about not getting one, he will cough up much bigger concessions when he’s panicked….

Now it’s true that the president forcefully reiterated his refusal to negotiate over the debt limit in his statement after the House vote last night. And if raising the debt limit were the only deadline looming in March, that might count for something, since it’s harder to squeeze a guy for concessions if he won’t even take your calls. But, as a practical matter, this is just a semantic game. The White House will be negotiating hard over the next two months even if it says it’s not negotiating over the debt limit, since the bill that funds the government for this year expires in March, as does the two-month delay in the automatic spending cuts that Congress just approved. What difference does it make why you say you’re negotiating if in the end you’re still negotiating?

Put all that together and here’s what the fiscal cliff accomplished then: It affirmed to Republicans that Obama will do pretty much anything he can to avoid a debt default, regardless of what he says. It affirmed the White House anxiety that the GOP might not blink before we default. To put it mildly, that’s quite an asymmetry. I want to believe the president can get through the next stage in this endless budget stalemate without accepting some of the more dangerous spending cuts conservatives are demanding. But at this point I’m having a hard time seeing it.

Scheiber also asserts that Republicans care more about inflicting pain on domestic spending than on protecting the Pentagon, which is why he adjudges the sequestration delay as a Republican asset in the debt limit talks. That may be true of Rand Paul, but it’s not so clear when it comes to your average Republican Member of Congress who is on record predicting the impending defeat of the United States in a future war with Iran or North Korea or China or Russia, and who is feeling heat from defense contractors back home and in DC. And let’s also remember GOPers are going to begin thinking ahead to 2014, when a more suitably old and white electorate will re-emerge, giving them, in theory at least, another chance to replay 2011. On the other hand, conservative shrieking over the “betrayal” of congressional Republicans in accepting the fiscal deal is already reaching a high-pitched whine, along with entirely understandable concerns about the stability of GOP leadership.

So it will continue to be difficult to determine who has the upper hand in the weeks just ahead, particularly as new “lines in the sand” are drawn and re-drawn and jittery markets exert their own pressure on all the actors.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.