This is starting to give Kabuki theater a bad name. The competing congressional debt ceiling plans presented at grimly choreographed press conferences. Bipartisan language used to fig leaf nakedly partisan bills. Last night’s dueling primetime speeches by Obama and Boehner, offered as the clock ticks closer to default with no constructive compromise in sight.
The markets still seem to be in denial about the growing prospect that America might fail to raise the debt ceiling for the first time in our history. They are assuming rationality from an ideology-first crowd in congress. But make no mistake: we are heading into unprecedented territory.
This is a political crisis manifesting itself as a fiscal crisis. Deficit reduction is no longer the real goal. Principled differences have been abandoned. Instead, there is just the struggle to survive politically without taking the nation off a cliff. It is a failure of divided government, and that’s why the two prime time speeches last night offered a preview of campaign 2012.
Standing at the bully pulpit of the East Room, President Obama strained to recapture the centrist credibility he had in campaign ’08, citing ex-presidents from Jefferson to Reagan, casting the debt ceiling debate as between a bipartisan deficit reduction plan and anti-tax absolutists in the House GOP. It was a speech infused with independent voter-pleasing lines like “We can’t allow the American people to become collateral damage to Washington’s political warfare.” The President’s ability to win over converts at this stage of the game is in question.
But just as the weakness of the Republican field makes Obama’s chances for re-election look surprisingly good right now, the president’s speech benefitted by comparison to Speaker Boehner.
Afforded the unusual luxury of equal time, the best that can be said about Boehner’s speech is that it was brief. It did not aim for great themes or grand eloquence. It was composed of talking points stitched together. The danger with poll-tested oration is lines that work in focus groups often fall flat when confronted with facts.
For example, “the president wants a blank check today” dutifully echoed Karl Rove’s ‘American Crossroads’ ad, but it lacks credibility when the core of the current debate is whether we should cut $1 or $2 trillion in spending in exchange for not defaulting.
When Boehner stated “the president is adamant that we cannot make fundamental changes in our entitlement programs” it also flew in the face of what we know about negotiations to date—namely that Obama took an enormous political risk by backing entitlement reform as part of a grand bargain, offering to raise the Medicare eligibility age to 67 and other cost saving adjustments. This is of a Nixon-in-China level of significance, but it was dismissed and/or denied with one line.
“The President would not take yes for an answer” was another awkward act of attempted political jujitzu. With a spending cut to revenue raise ratio of roughly 3-to-1 being negotiated, the liberal criticism of President Obama was that he was giving away the store in an attempt to get a historic deficit reduction deal. The Republicans were the ones who kept walking out of negotiations, from Jon Kyl and Eric Cantor in Biden’s talks to Speaker Boehner this past Friday.
And then there is decrying “the crisis atmosphere that he has created.” Faced with the very real possibility of default less than seven days away, the current favorite GOP talking point presents President Obama as a politically calculating fear-monger, trying to scare old people and markets with tales of what will happen if we don’t raise the debt ceiling. The markets are less sentimental. Math doesn’t have a partisan spin and you can’t convince creditors that refusing to pay your bills is a brave stand for fiscal responsibility.
Pivot forward and you can see the hypocrisies that will be dragged out in the coming days. For example, the key ground to be fought over is whether there will be one deal to raise the debt ceiling through 2012, or whether we will be revisiting this fight in an election year.
"I don’t see how multiple votes on a debt ceiling increase can help get us to where we want to go, we want big reforms,” said Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor back on June 21. “I am not so sure that if we can’t make the tough decisions now, why we would be making those tough decisions later."
But that was then and this is now. Cantor & Co. find themselves arguing that only a short-term deficit ceiling deal is possible. This means that we could be enjoying the same sort of brinksmanship at the height of a presidential campaign. What could possibly go wrong?
The biggest hypocrisy is also the biggest lost opportunity—the failure to follow through on deficit reduction. Because the partisan plans now being put forward would side-step the “tough decisions” and “big reforms” that are necessary to really rein in the deficit and the debt.
Harry Reid’s $2.7 trillion proposed plan would include no entitlement reforms or revenue increases. John Boehner’s proposal would cut $1.6 trillion initially and kick serious deficit reduction to yet another commission for recommendations.
We’ve had plenty of commissions in recent months—The Bowles-Simpson Commission and the Gang of Six report. Both put forward ambitious and balanced plans comprised of tax reform, spending cuts and entitlement reform. And both were rejected. There will come a time very soon when fiscal conservatives lament the doomed proposals put on the table by the Gang of 6, just as some now do with the lost opportunity of the Bowles-Simpson deficit commission.
The irony is that Tea Partiers who sincerely campaigned on reducing the deficit and the debt have succeeded in largely preserving the status quo because they refused to any revenue increases attained through closing the loopholes that function as earmarks in the tax code. This misplaced sense of priorities at a pivotal negotiation period will cost the nation in the future. All-or-nothing usually leads to nothing.
As you watch this drama play out over the next seven days, don’t forget that this is an entirely forced fire-drill. The debt ceiling has been raised more or less automatically in the past—77 times since JFK, including 18 times under Ronald Reagan and 7 times under George W. Bush. Republicans were not rushing to the ramparts then -- consistent with their heightened concern over deficits that comes only when Democrats are in the White House.
Not that there hasn’t been plenty of partisan hypocrisy to go around. Then-Senator Obama famously voted against raising the debt ceiling when President Bush was in office—a vote he later described as ‘a new senator making a political vote as opposed to doing what is right by the country.”
Nonetheless, this is the first time in American history that the debt ceiling vote has been held hostage by hyper-partisan politics. It won’t be the last. It will be difficult, if not impossible, to put this genie back in the bottle. Whether we default or just end up downgraded because of our inability to govern ourselves effectively, this kabuki theater has real costs—both now and in the future.