Last week, after renewed talk that the debt-ceiling law itself needs to be eliminated, I suggested a way to make the argument appealing to Republicans. It’s a straightforward pitch: there may come a point in the near future when a Republican president has to govern alongside a Democratic Congress (a divide last seen just three years ago). Do Republicans want those Dems to have leverage over the GOP White House, threatening to crash the economy unless progressive demands are met?
Fred Bauer imagined just such a scenario the other day, envisioning an emboldened Speaker Pelosi confronting a Republican president in August 2015 with demands for tax increases. “And what could Republicans say to this?” Bauer wrote.
How realistic is this? I’m afraid Jon Chait’s take on this is probably the right one.
I could imagine a Democratic Party holding the debt ceiling hostage, but not this Democratic party. It would have to be a far more left-wing party, in which activists have gained greater control and which has largely severed itself from any business influence.
The current democratic party lacks anything like the will to power to threaten economic catastrophe in order to force a government mostly controlled by elected members of the opposition to accept its contested policy agenda. And it would require a substantial coterie susceptible to the argument of the default denialists — a natural fit for the party of supply-siders and climate change deniers, but not a good fit for the moderate coalition that forms the current Democratic party.
As hostage strategies go, the current crop of congressional Republicans are pulling an unprecedented stunt, which only works because most sincerely believe they really are dangerously crazy. It’s critical to making the strategy work — those holding the hostage have to convince everyone that they’re ready to follow through on their threat.
In this case, that means a fairly radical assumption — Democrats have to be convinced that the congressional GOP is willing to hurt the nation, ignore their constitutional obligations, and undermine our credibility, stability, and global reputation. In other words, Republicans have to tell the political world they love a right-wing agenda more than they love the country, and convince everyone they mean it.
Democrats, in this case, are persuaded. It’s why the debt-ceiling negotiations have occurred, and why Dems have been willing to concede so much — Democrats genuinely believe Republicans are as radical and dangerous as they appear to be.
But what would happen if/when a Democratic Congress started making comparable threats to a Republican president? Probably nothing. It’s a question of credibility — GOP leaders and everyone else knows that Democrats aren’t crazy; they’re not irresponsible; and they’re not indifferent to the nation’s needs and future.
They wouldn’t, in other words, be perceived as folks who would shoot the hostage. Republicans play this game far more effectively because they satisfied the political world’s skepticism — few question the notion that they’re stark raving mad.