Daniel W. Drezner

Explaining the House GOP’s bargaining strategy on the debt ceiling

Explaining the House GOP’s bargaining strategy on the debt ceiling

For those readers not keeping close tabs on the debt ceiling negotiations currently under way in Washington, here’s how each participant views them:

Needless to say, this lose-lose bargaining deadlock has started to seriously exasperate Megan McArdle.  Today she asks a fair question:

I know I’m beating a dead horse at this point, but I continue to be mystified by what the base, the activists, and the politicians who are pushing the "no new revenue" stance hope to accomplish.  
Let’s start by pointing out the obvious: the Democrats do not show any signs of caving.  They have offered what seem to be very attractive deals, and been turned down.  Think you’re going to get a more attractive deal?  Every time another poll like this comes out, your bargaining position gets worse.  Moreover, in Washington, deals take time.  Even if Obama and the Democrats caved right now and gave the GOP massive entitlement cuts in exchange for raising the debt ceiling, the government would be hard-pressed to hammer out the details, draft them into legislative language, get the CBO to score the cuts so you know that they’re real, and then whip the votes to get the damn thing passed.  Every day you wait makes it less, not more, likely that you can get any deal at all.
Maybe you think the deadline is artificial and Treasury is just exaggerating.  I have been very much less than impressed by the arguments I have seen to this effect, because most of the people making them seem to be under the impression that on August 2nd Treasury can just start playing accounting games, when August 2nd is in fact the date when Treasury says it will have exhausted all the accounting games that we’ve previously used to finesse the debt ceiling.  But even if it were true, so what?  How does extending the crisis another month get us any closer to a deal?  What’s going to change?

There’s been a lot of online debate about this question.  Business Insider’s Joe Weisenthal thinks this is just a matter of re-election motives, but I don’t think it’s that simple.  As Nate Silver points out, "there is a larger ideological gap between House Republicans and Republican voters than there is between Republican voters and Democratic ones."  Furthermore, many of the House GOP freshmen were elected in swing districts, so it’s not as if they’re representing only ultraconservative portions of the country. 

I’d attribute the strategy of the House GOP caucus to two factors.  The first is rhetorical blowback.  It’s simply impossible for elected representatives to say "we’re not going to raise the debt ceiling, we’re not going to raise the debt ceiling, we’re not going to raise the debt ceiling…" and then actually raise the debt ceiling.  And they really can’t agree to the Mitch McConnell plan of "raise the debt ceiling with no concessions and then blame Obama."  They can’t agree to any "grand bargain" on austerity because any such bargain would have to include tax increases and there’s that darn pledge not to. Politicians do occasionally go back on flat-out pledges not to do something.  The example of George H. W. Bush to current GOP House members is not a good one, however.  With blowback, it doesn’t matter whether a member of Congress really and truly believes what they’re saying or whether they can’t reverse course without exposing their political backside.  They’re just as screwed. 

The second factor is even simpler:  to date the current Tea Party strategy of "no retreat, no surrender" has worked like political gangbusters.  Recall that the conventional wisdom in Washington in early 2009 was that the GOP was going to have to be in the wilderness for a couple of election cycles before moderating their positions and winning at the polls again.  The exact opposite of that scenario has occurred (see Erick Erickson on precisely this point).  The Tea Party movement has been built on uncompromising hardline positions, and has led to significant electoral and political victories.  As Joshua Green explains, even the exception proves this rule for Tea Partiers:

In April, [Speaker Boehner] narrowly skirted a government shutdown and, after extracting $40 billion in concessions from the White House, appeared to have emerged intact. But these concessions turned out to be less than advertised, which left many members of his caucus feeling betrayed – and therefore less, not more, inclined to submit on the debt ceiling.

Unless and until the Tea Party wing of the GOP pays a political price for its positions, they have zero incentive to change their strategy. 

Am I missing anything?