Let's Play A Game Of 'Brinkmanship'

**see update at end of post**

Unfortunately, our President isn’t actually all that good at that particular game. But he – and the current congress – are going to get another chance to play it again, very soon. In fact, it’s already starting.

I speak, of course, of the mostly-confected crisis over the debt ceiling. Let me be clear up front: I believe that the liberal pundits who’ve argued that there’s no way the Republicans are going to allow America to start defaulting on its debt for the first time in history are correct. Much like killing Medicare, if there’s one thing that politicians are self-aware enough to recognize, it’s that they don’t want there to be any chance they’ll be credibly portrayed as the one who was responsible for such a thing. If a politician of any stripe can see either that a given thing is extraordinarily popular, as Medicare and Social Security are, or that the consequences of doing/not doing something would be particularly awful for the country, there’s almost no way you can get said politician to be seen as signing onto any legislation that ends the popular program or takes the catastrophic act. It’s a simple matter of political self-preservation, one of the few things our political class is genuinely excellent at.

Let there be no mistake, refusing to raise the nation’s debt ceiling – in essence, allowing the USA to begin to default on its obligations – would indeed be an act which would have catastrophic effects, despite the mewling of the Ron/Rand Paul set who’ve been busy for years trying to convince the nation that the worst thing in the world we can do as a nation is carry any debt whatsoever. It’s a defensible position to suggest that debt is bad, of course, but carrying debt in general is not nearly as bad as the consequences of what would happen should the country’s politicians allow America to begin to default. So, based upon our politician’s excellent survival instincts, it follows that there’s very little serious chance that even a party so lately nutty as the GOP would want to have that albatross hung around their necks as we head into the 2012 campaign season. In the end, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell will find a way to either excuse away their vote to raise the debt ceiling to the Randian tea-hordes, or they will find some piece of political rhetoric/trickery to blame it on the Democrats, or whatever else they need to do to mitigate the damage to their electoral chances within their own party, and the vote to raise the debt ceiling will pass…barely. That is the way it often works on truly controversial (or at least controversial-seeming) pieces of legislation: they appear headed for an uncertain fate until the very last moment, when they “magically” manage to get just barely enough votes to squeak over the finish line. Ta-da!

Unfortunately, of late, what takes place all-too-often in the immediate run-up to that final, successful vote is a game of brinkmanship. You see, the Republican leadership figured out some time ago that the default position of the Democrats of today – or at least enough of today’s Democrats to make a significant difference, even when they are in the majority – is not the fire-breathing “I welcome their hatred” of FDR when referring to his political enemies in both the GOP and in industry, but a sort of reflexive “please, Hammer, don’t hurt us” milquetoastery that stems back (obviously, LOL) to the days when Tom DeLay ruled with an iron fist.

DeLay’s long gone from the political scene, but the belief by both Republicans and, unfortunately, Democrats, that the natural order of things is for Republicans to push the crazy as far as they can in order to coerce concessions on pet issues from Democrats who appear to genuinely believe that the Republicans will “shoot the hostage,” remains quite solidly in place. That’s why this round of negotiations over a previously noncontroversial issue is so worrying. John Boehner, speaking yesterday before a crowd of what George W. Bush once jokingly referred to as “his base” (Wall Street money-barons), remarked for the first time that concessions from Democrats would have to be “more than two trillion dollars.” Trillion, with a T.

This stands in sharp contrast to only last week, when the GOP leadership – not just Boehner, but across the board – appeared on the brink of being willing to compromise on raising the debt ceiling. Most of us on the progressive side of the political spectrum probably looked at those headlines as a sort of vindication of our idea that raising the debt ceiling was simply non-negotiable. What, after all, were the GOP leadership going to do, let us default? But yesterday, the Speaker appeared to be doing the Lucy Van Pelt routine (again), pulling the ball of compromise away at the last moment, holding out cooperation until increased demands are met.

Yet nothing – I repeat, nothing – about the fundamentals of the equation has changed since last week. Republicans are simply going to see, once again, what concessions they can wring out of a Democratic congress and President who’ve shown repeately that they will indeed concede significant priorities and goals upon nothing more than the threat of witholding of GOP votes on a key piece of legislation. When President Obama, a few weeks ago, invited Paul Ryan and friends to sit in the front row for his speech about the economy, and used the opportunity to blast Ryan’s “Road Map” which included additional tax breaks for the wealthy at the expense of privatizing Medicare, I cheered. When Obama said that reauthorizing the Bush tax cuts on the wealthiest Americans (the top 1 or 2%) was a non-starter, I thought (along with a lot of other people) “damn straight! You go get, em, Mr. President.”

Yet, along with that rising sense of hope that this time, the President and the Democrats were going to do things the right way and not give in to GOP blackmail, was the realization that there was literally no difference in the underlying mechanics between this time and the last. The details are different, of course: we’re at a different point in time. But the game of brinkmanship that’s being played is identical. And the sad truth of the matter is that the Republicans play it much, MUCH better than Democrats have played it lately – for years, in fact. Last time around, Republicans were able to get the President to concede to re-authorizing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans simply by insisting that they would block the extension of unemployment benefits. To be sure, America’s unemployed desperately need the extension of those benefits, just as they have at other recession-wracked periods in our history. But during those earlier times, it was never very controversial to extend those benefits. Why? Because politicians of all stripes knew that their constituents were hurting and needed it, but also because they feared (with good reason) that if they were seen as the party that took away that much needed relief, they would pay for it at the polls.

John Boehner himself famously admitted, on camera, to Bob Schieffer of CBS’ Face The Nation that if voting to extend the Bush tax cuts for ONLY the middle class were all he could get, he would take it. In other words, he would give up the Bush-era tax cut extension for the wealthiest Americans if he and the GOP weren’t able to get any more:

If the only option I have is to vote for those at $250,000 and below, of course I’m going to do that. But I’m going to do everything I can to fight to make sure that we extend the current tax rates for all Americans.

Schieffer was so stunned by this on-air admission of defeat by the ranking Republican in the house that he came back to it three separate times to make sure he had heard Boehner correctly. And, each time, no mistake: Boehner begrudgingly confirmed that if he could only get the Bush-era tax cuts extended for those with incomes below $250k, he would take it. So what did the White House do? They began to compromise, mostly with themselves, but also (apparently, as a show of “good faith”) with the Republicans. By the time the vote actually occurred, well, we all saw what happened. Boehner and the GOP realized (because Democrats telegraphed it to them by their public statements on the matter) that they could be threatened into extending those tax cuts for everyone, including those over $250k. So Boehner held the indeed quite-important extension of unemployment benefits hostage, and allowed Democrats to wrest defeat from the jaws of victory. Amazing.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who’s had the thought that if Democrats could be bullied on that issue, when they had the GOP over a barrel so badly that the top House Republican publicly admitted it, repeatedly, on-camera, then what’s to think they won’t cave again this time? After all, the calculus is nearly identical: unemployment benefits were and are indeed crucial for struggling Americans, and there would be political hell to pay for the party that killed it, just as the raising of the debt ceiling vote is critically important and there would be hell to pay politically for the party who allowed America to default for the first time in our nation’s history. But if Democrats and the White House could be buffaloed before, what’s to say they couldn’t be again?

How do I know John Boehner understands the political consequences to his party (to say nothing of the political consequences to this nation) that would result from him allowing his GOP caucus to tank the debt ceiling vote? Because, once again, he actually said so, right in the same speech where he insisted Democrats be willing to cut $2trillion in spending, that’s how. Fast-forward this to the 10:50 mark, and hear it for yourself:

Of course, as soon as he says it, Boehner follows it up immediately by saying that there must be spending cuts to go along with a raising of the debt ceiling. But that’s mostly misdirection to obfuscate the fact that once again, he just told anyone paying attention – as these Wall Street titans who would be among the worst-hurt by an American default on its obligations surely were – that he’s not going to allow that to happen. As in the debate over extension of the Bush tax cuts vs. unemployment benefits extensions, Boehner is tethered enough to reality to understand that whatever the ravings of the tea-loons might be, they won’t have to pay the consequences, and he will. So he telegraphs, quite clearly, that he’s not going to allow the United States to default.

Will the President and Democrats catch that this time? Will they use that knowledge to rebuff the bluster and blackmail the GOP now seems intent upon trying to visit upon them (and us)? Or will Democrats, led by the negotiating instincts and bully pulpit of the Presidency, cave in once more, snatching defeat yet again from the jaws of victory? Let’s hope not. Because not only would two trillion dollars in spending cuts be nothing short of ruinous for the country, there’s no need to even consider compromise on this one: John Boehner already told us so himself.

**UPDATE, 5/10, 3:40PM**

In a bitterly coincidental coda to my use of last December’s spectacular cave by Democrats and President Obama on refusing to extend the Bush tax cuts for the rich (thereby adding an additional $700bn over ten years to the deficit), just today, from CEPR, there is word of a new bill introduced jointly by Dave Camp and Orrin Hatch in the house and the senate, respectively. The bill “would let states take federal funds that are supposed to help the long-term unemployed and use them for other purposes.”

In other words, the lottery effect, all over again: funding for our schools! Except the politicians drain the existing funding for the schools away for other projects, now that the new funding from the lottery is coming in. Net effect on funding for the schools? Zero…or worse.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that this bill will become law. But in our up-is-down world of politics recently, I wouldn’t bet the farm that it won’t, either. The larger point here is: there’s already legislation in the pipeline that would render moot the glorious victory achieved last December by Democrats in extending unemployment benefits through heroically caving in on the Bush tax cuts extension for the ultra-wealthy at the last second.

Ah, progress.