Why the debt limit fight scares me this time
Plus DeSantis announces
The debt limit fight is something that reoccurs periodically in American politics. Every few years we reach the congressionally-mandated limit on borrowing and Congress has to raise the roof as it were. (I’ve always wanted to use “as it were” in a sentence and it fits nicely here.) But this year, the tug of war seems more disconcerting and I think there is a real possibility that we could end up in a federal default.
One good example of why I am nervous is what I heard on Sean Hannity’s show earlier this week. I don’t usually linger on Fox News these days, but my wife had the clicker and stopped while Hannity was talking to Newt Gingrich.
“The Biden team has come to recognize that if there’s a default,” Gingrich opined, “it’s going to go down in history as the ‘Biden default,’ it’s going to end his presidential campaign for 2024, and it’s unacceptable.”
This is precisely what you’d expect a Republican to say, and it’s precisely wrong.
While I sympathize with the desire to trim some fat from the federal budget, I have grown very tired of the brinksmanship that goes along with the debt limit increases. The rhetoric surrounding the increases has grown more combative over the years to the point where some Republicans, including their 2024 frontrunner, purport to be fine with pushing the country into default.
Aside from the hypocrisy of the fact that these Republicans raised the debt limit without spending reforms when they held congressional majorities and the White House and actually could have passed meaningful reforms with minimum fuss, they don’t seem to care that default is bad for the country as long as it’s bad for Biden.
House Republicans were able to pass a spending bill, but their measure has gone nowhere. Still, this does allow them to say, “Look what we did, now the ball is in Biden’s court.”
Over the past couple of months, we’ve seen the financial turmoil when a few large banks collapse. Imagine the problems that a federal default could cause. But hey, it will be the “Biden default.”
Or will it?
The House bill is pretty transparently a wish list that was never meant to pass. And although some polls say that voters think the debt limit should be tied to spending cuts, there are also other polls that show voters just want to raise the debt limit and defuse the crisis. My bet would be that if the government does shut down or default, public opinion will swing pretty quickly.
Republicans are often accused of holding the country hostage with their debt limit shenanigans, and Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) seems to embrace that metaphor. Speaking to a reporter for Semafor, Gaetz reportedly said that Republicans “don’t feel like we should negotiate with our hostage.”
It’s this sort of talk that leads the public to believe that Republicans want to shut the government down and force a default. The combative attitudes play well with the base but not swing voters.
History has shown us that government shutdowns typically hurt both parties, but they are worse for the party that is deemed to have caused the problem. In most cases, that is the Republicans because in most cases it is Republicans who are screaming “Shut it down!” all over television and the internet. Accordingly, Republicans usually get the worst end of public opinion. That includes the Gingrich-era shutdowns of the 1990s. In this case, it seems likely that, after months of watching Republicans threaten default if they don’t get their way, voters will once again blame the GOP for the fiscal mess.
Interestingly, the AP poll that I cited above as favoring spending cuts with the debt limit increase, the Republican position, also showed that President Biden and the Democrats had higher approval ratings on how they were handling debt limit negotiations than the Republicans that the poll respondents agreed with on policy. The people citing that poll to support their brinksmanship won’t tell you that detail, but it’s another example of how the electorate can send very conflicting signals.
Democrats shouldn’t get too cocky though, because none of this necessarily translates into an electoral win for Team Biden. In 2013, Republicans were overwhelmingly blamed for that year’s government shutdown, but they still won a sweeping midterm election victory a year later. Why? Because the country moved on and decided that Obamacare was a bigger problem than the idea of giving Ted Cruz more power in the Senate.
Sometimes Democrats do get blamed. In the 2019 shutdown, Democrats were considered mostly to blame. Republicans fared better in general but Donald Trump was blamed almost as much as the Democrats.
And Democrats are not blameless this year. The Democrats had two years as a majority party to force through an increase but failed to take the opportunity thanks in part to Senators Manchin and Sinema. Once the Republicans took the House, President Biden vowed not to negotiate on the increase. This was never a viable strategy and was a large factor in why no talks were conducted until the clock was ticking down.
If negotiations break down, Democrats have two options and both of them are bad. One option is to invoke the 14th Amendment, which states that the “validity of the public debt… shall not be questioned.” The problem is that while this might allow the servicing of current debt, it probably wouldn’t allow the government to borrow to keep funding its operations. It might avert a default but not a shutdown.
Another option is a plan by Minority Leader Hakim Jeffries (D-N.Y.) that would allow a clean debt limit increase bill to come to the floor of the Hosue without Speaker McCarthy’s support. This plan involves a new House rule filed by Democrats on the Rules Committee that would allow a clean bill to bypass McCarthy. The downside here is that Democrats are a minority so the bill would need some Republican support. That support would be very slow in coming.
Obviously, the best solution - and what’s best for America - is for the parties to get together and pass a freaking compromise bill already. While Republican candidates might like to see Biden taken down a notch by a default, the bigger danger is from the Chinese and the Russians, who would like to see the US weakened and the dollar destabilized.
Both sides should publicly state that a default is not an option, just as President Obama did back in 2011. Get the best deal that you can - for America, not for your voters back in the district or the base watching Fox News - but don’t put a default on the table. Because if default is on the table, sooner or later someone is going to misjudge the other side and push us over the edge.
It’s pretty difficult to make the case that you’re trying to make America great again if you’re pushing for a default that will benefit China in order to make the current president look bad. You might even call it Biden Derangement Syndrome.
DESANTIS TO ENTER THE RACE: Reports on Tuesday say that Ron DeSantis is set to announce the formal start of his presidential campaign on Wednesday. The Florida governor is rumored to be planning to kick off his campaign on Twitter with Elon Musk at 6 pm Eastern.
I’ve made no secret of the fact that I am not a fan of DeSantis, but I will say that of the 346 Republican candidates (347 after Tim Scott announced earlier this week), he seems to be the only one mounting a serious challenge to Donald Trump and not simply setting the stage for 2028 and assuming a(nother) Trump loss next year. I include in that tally Asa Hutchinson, the former Arkansas governor and Trump critic, who announced his campaign a month ago and then went missing. (Hey Asa, if you’re out there, check in!)
At present, DeSantis trails Trump by about 30 points in the FiveThirtyEight polling average. That comes with a couple of caveats. DeSantis is not in the race yet and even though the matchup is national, the primaries will be state-by-state.
Still, I tend to think that the Republican Party now belongs to Trump. The nomination is The Former Guy’s for the taking unless something earth-shattering happens. I don’t think that DeSantis can beat him, and I think that the governor may destroy his chances for 2028 in the process of losing.
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TRUMP TRIAL DATE SET: A federal judge set a trial date of March 25, 2024, for Donald Trump’s first (but not last) criminal trial. This trial is for the charges brought by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg. Although the trial is set for the middle of the primary season, the Bragg indictments are generally considered the weakest of the legal challenges that Trump faces.
UKRAINE; Russia has claimed control of Bakhmut while Ukraine claims to be hanging on to control of some fringes of territory there. The city is largely destroyed but it would represent a symbolic and much-needed victory for Russia. The invaders have sacrificed thousands of soldiers for slow but steady gains. Ukraine is reportedly trying to encircle the Russian forces in Bakhmut so their presence in the city may be short-lived.
Anti-Putin Russians also launched a cross-border raid from Ukraine into Belgorod, Russia. This is also a symbolic gesture and one that will require Russia to strengthen border defenses at the expense of units that are attacking and defending in Ukraine.
President Biden also dropped opposition to F-16s for Ukraine at the G7 conference. This doesn’t mean that F-16s are headed for Ukraine immediately as the idea still has hurdles to jump before the planes are deployed. Training Ukrainian pilots to combat proficiency levels will also take months.
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