In May President Obama should have made a forceful, definitive statement:
“There is some talk about making an increase in the debt ceiling a partisan fight. That is unacceptable. The debt ceiling is not about authorizing new spending, but about paying for what Congress already authorized. If Congress doesn’t want the money spent, they should not put it in their budget — they cannot have their cake and eat it too. The debt ceiling has been routinely raised whenever we need to borrow more to pay the bills run up by Congress. President George W. Bush raised it seven times; President Reagan raised it 17 times.
So let me be clear. I will only accept a clean increase in the debt ceiling. I will not negotiate on this point, and I will veto any bill that attempts to connect the debt ceiling to other issues. That would be playing Russian roulette with the American economy, allowing partisan bickering to put at risk our low interest rates, good credit rating and economic recovery. However, this summer I call on Republicans to join me for a serious discussion on the future of the budget, with the goal of serious deficit reduction as soon as possible. However, I will not tie that to the debt ceiling, or accept any legislation which does.”
Such a statement, clear and forthright early on in the process could have altered the way in which this discussion has played itself out. First, real talk on budget cuts could be proceeding without an arbitrary deadline that does not leave time to really think about the implications of perhaps trillions of dollars of cuts in coming years. Second, America’s economy would be safe from the severe consequences of default. Finally, the US would not be in a position where the party in the majority in one of the chambers of Congress could use the potential for economic crisis as a way to ram its narrow agenda through. The Republicans in the House are literally holding the US economy hostage. It should never have come to this.
President Obama, by deciding he could negotiate and perhaps use this issue to pressure Democrats into accepting cuts, walked into a trap. It is a trap that goes beyond him personally. This sets the precedent for a party that does not have the votes to get something done through the usual process to find a way to use threat of real disaster to dictate their agenda to the rest of government. Rather than trying to win in 2012 (both the Presidency and the Senate will be in play), they want to put a gun to the nation’s head and dare the Senate and President not to give in to their demands.
I’d expect that in a third world state or an emerging democracy in the former Soviet Union, but not in the US. If politics sinks to this level, then the US is truly in severe decline. Former Presidential standard barrier for the GOP John McCain lashed out at the House “tea party” Republicans, claiming they were irresponsible and in his words “bizarro.” Other Republicans have also expressed horror at the events unfolding. As Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said, the GOP needs to go back to being the party of Ronald Reagan. Reagan was an optimist who worked with people to convince them to go along with him. The current gang in the House are bitter and angry, and want to use threats to get their way.
Speaker Boehner is an enigma. The most friendly read on his tactics is he simply wants to strengthen his hand and show the tea party brigade that he’s fighting to get the most he can get. Then when a compromise comes, enough Republicans will join with Democrats to pass it, even if the tea party folk demur. But to do so in this manner and with this level of incompetence (you don’t announce a plan on national TV when you aren’t sure you have the votes) not only damages the country but hurts his own party — and his chance at keeping his majority. He may really think he can ram this through, in which case he’s putting the dreams of the American people on the line.
It would be irresponsible for President Obama to give in on this, even if it means default. The President simply cannot allow the House to dictate policy under threat of disaster. If he gives in, then the political game sinks to a new low and could get much uglier down the line. He should have never let it get to this point.
It’s probably too late to demand a “clean” debt ceiling vote. He’s publicly urged compromise and it would seem erratic to shift now. But it’s not too late to draw a new line in the sand and mean it. Compromise that is bi-partisan means something that gets significant support from both parties. That can happen, and I suspect will — though one gets the sense that process is getting a bit out of control and the principles aren’t really sure where its going.
When a compromise is finally reached, on signing President Obama must harshly condemn the whole spectacle as being an embarrassment to the American people. He must take his share of the blame, and state that never again will he be party to some negotiation tied to an issue like the debt ceiling. He must say in late July or early August what he should have said in May. The US economy cannot be held hostage so that one group can get its way. That is a threat to the very foundation of our democracy. They should go through the normal legislative process, including making it an issue in the next election.
President Obama made a mistake opening the door to allow the issue to be used this way. He must slam it shut, and refuse to open it again, not even a crack.