The Deeper Problem With Media Acceptance of Republican Irresponsibility

Alarms are going up all over the progressive commentariat about the early signs of Beltway complacency–particularly in the MSM–about Republicans threats to wreak holy havoc on the economy by taking the debt limit hostage to their spending demands (more for the Pentagon, less for everything else).

TNR’s Alec MacGillis, quoting WaPo’s Greg Sargent extensively, lays out the complaint most efficiently:

It is striking to what degree the Washington establishment has come to normalize Republican hostage-taking of the debt limit, to see it as a predictable and almost natural element of the political landscape. Greg Sargent argues convincingly why this is a problem, noting that the debt ceiling must be raised to pay for past spending, and should not be used as a chip in negotiating future budgets: “In the current context, conservatives and Republicans who hold out against a debt limit hike are, in practical terms, only threatening the full faith and credit of the United States — and threatening to damage the economy — in order to get what they want. Any accounts that don’t convey this with total clarity — and convey the sense that this is a normal negotiation — are essentially misleading people. It’s that simple.”

What bears stating even more strongly, though, is how far we’ve come from 2011, when the Washington establishment viewed the Republicans’ threat of credit default as as the utterly brazen and unprecedented step that it was. Even those who supported the gambit recognized it as a newly deployed weapon.

I agree with all that, and with MacGillis’ assessment of early media coverage of the debt limit fight as just another episode of the usual partisan follies.

But there is a deeper problem that makes adequate media treatment of GOP posturing very difficult: an inability to grasp and explain the underlying radicalism of conservative doctrine on federal domestic spending. Exhibit One, of course, was the frequent refusal to understand the fundamental change in the role of the federal government that was the object of the Ryan Budget, particularly its first iteration. And rarely did major MSM writers and gabbers bother to suggest that immediate implementation of the Ryan Budget via the budget reconciliation process would have been the predictable result of an election where Romney won and Republicans won control of the Senate.

But Exhibit Two, and far more relevant today, is the baseline for conservative positioning on the debt limit, the Cut, Cap and Balance Pledge, signed by Mitt Romney himself in 2011 and championed by the powerful House Study Committee, to which 165 Republicans in the 112th Congress belonged (there’s no updated list for the 113d, but there’s no reason to think the RSC has lost its grip on the House GOP Caucus).

I’ve gone through this a number of times over the last two years, but will once again post the basics of the CCB proposal:

1. Cut – We must make discretionary and mandatory spending reductions that would cut the deficit in half next year.

2. Cap – We need statutory, enforceable caps to align federal spending with average revenues at 18% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), with automatic spending reductions if the caps are breached.

3. Balance – We must send to the states a Balanced Budget Amendment (BBA) with strong protections against federal tax increases and a Spending Limitation Amendment (SLA) that aligns spending with average revenues as described above.

And the whole idea of this proposal (and the specific subject of the CCB Pledge) is to make any vote for a debt limit increase strictly contingent on all three planks of the proposal, which means a radical and permanent reduction in federal spending, far beyond anything contemplated in the Ryan Budget.

Last time we went around the bend with a debt limit fight, 12 GOP Senators had already signed the Pledge, and 105 House Republicans signed a letter to the House leadership linking the debt limit increase to implementation of CCB.

Now no one knows how many House (or Senate) Republicans would ultimately refuse to vote for a debt limit increase unless this hallucinatory proposal were adopted, which would never happen unless vast changes in American politics and public opinion occurred. But crazy as it is, this will be the position from which conservative activists in and out of Congress will put pressure on Republican negotiators (or in the case of Boehner, non-negotiators). And if media types don’t understand that, then they can’t understand how high the risk of a debt default actually is, and how little maneuvering room GOP leaders will feel they have, particularly since they are already ruling out revenue measures as part of a “deal,” and generally thought defense spending was far too low even before the sequester was scheduled.

So that’s a deeper reason, other than the risks involved to the economy, that people need to come to grips with Republican irresponsibility as the debt limit grows near. This isn’t a game, and the two sides aren’t even in the same book, much less the same page, going in. And even if Republicans are cynical enough to completely reverse what they are saying right now, they may not have the support in their own ranks to do so. Before other solutions–such as invocation of the “constitutional option” or even printing platinum coins–are completely ruled out, so, too, must any talk of “Cut, Cap and Balance,” which would basically make anything remotely resembling progressive politics unconstitutional. Yes, avoiding Congress on the debt limit would be politically and legally perilous, but so, too, is the alternative of assuming conservatives are bluffing after four straight years of incendiary rhetoric and oaths and threats on the very topic at hand.

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.