Why the Debt Ceiling Battle is Like the Iraq War Debate

When George W. Bush began moving towards war with Iraq in the summer of 2002, many security-minded Democrats, who knew full well that such a war was a terrible idea, got behind it anyway. They did so partly so as not to seem like wimps, but also because they believed, not unreasonably, that a certain amount of saber rattling could bring vital security benefits that might otherwise not be possible. International support for the economic sanctions and the no-fly-zone that had kept Saddam contained since the first Gulf War had been sagging; the prospect of war might get wobbly allies like France and Russia to recommit to the containment strategy. Weapons inspectors had been absent from the Iraq since 1998; the threat of invasion might persuade Saddam to let the inspectors back in.

As it happens, the drive towards war achieved both those goals by late 2002. Had Bush stopped there, history would have credited him with being a master of the realist exercise of power, and the Democrats who worked with him as savvy and wise. But of course Bush didn’t stop there. He invaded Iraq despite the fact that the inspectors found no weapons of mass destruction, because he had already made up his mind to invade—a fact Democrats who opposed the war rightly pointed out at the time.

I bring this up because I think there’s a parallel between the Iraq war vote and the drama now playing out on raising the debt ceiling. Obama and many other Democrats understand that the GOP effort to hold the debt ceiling hostage to spending cuts is crazy on its face. But they also see that it provides a vehicle for achieving some painful long term adjustments in Medicare and Social Security that, if made now, could secure those programs for the long term while setting right the fiscal position of the country generally. From that vantage point it makes sense to try to cut a deal with House leaders. But such a deal presumes that the GOP can be persuaded not to go through with its members’ threats to refuse to lift the debt ceiling.

But why should we presume that’s the case? Just as it should have been clear that Bush was determined to invade Iraq regardless, so to it is obvious that the Tea Party base, which holds the balance of power in the House, is perfectly willing to plunge the nation into fiscal anarchy if it doesn’t get 100 percent of what it’s asking for. Indeed many of these lawmakers have said plainly that they will not raise the debt ceiling under any circumstance and seem eager to pull the trigger just to prove that all the hand-wringing is an elitist hoax.

My concern is that the White House and congressional Democrats, having focused on the undeniable potential benefits of a deal with the GOP, have helped legitimate the Republican position that it is okay to hold the economy hostage the way they have. So if the hoped-for deal turns out to be, as I fear it is, a mirage, Democrats will partially own the subsequent economic disaster, which voters will see less as the insane unilateral actions of the House Republicans than as a failure by “Washington politicians” to work out their differences.

Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly.