Thursday, August 15, 2013

Listen to Boehner, Dems. When he announces a negotiating strategy, he executes

Republicans' latest reported strategy in the looming budget wars is to pass continuing resolutions that will fund the government at sequestration levels through November, when the next debt ceiling deadline looms -- then once again hold the country's faith and credit hostage to extremist demands like defunding Obamacare. Democrats should not take this strategy lightly. Methinks the account below, via The Week, gets the dynamics of this year's prior battles exactly backwards:
The Republican leadership has been increasingly under pressure to appease the right wing of the party. Publicly insisting that ObamaCare funding will be fought further down the road would soothe the demand for that fight in the first place, while kicking the can down the road, perhaps indefinitely.

As the Washington Post's Greg Sargent points out, this is exactly what happened with the last debt ceiling fight. In January, Boehner said the upcoming sequester debate, not debt ceiling fight, gave the GOP its best position to push for major budget cuts. Yet the sequester came and went without the GOP winning those deep concessions.
Come again? The sequester is "major budget cuts." As of now, those cuts are locked in for ten years, a seemingly immovable deadweight on Obama's long-term domestic agenda. Republicans may be ambivalent about their effects, actual and political, and ultimately unable to sustain their will to enact the cuts.  But they did not cave -- they decided to embrace the cuts, and they followed through, and the overall ten-year deficit reduction scorecard remains stuck at a 4-to-1 spending-cuts-to-tax-increases ratio.  In March it was Obama and the Democrats who caved, balking at forcing a government shutdown to shut off sequestration.

Boehner's decision to step back from a debt ceiling showdown and stand his ground at the sequester deadline worked. If Republicans do indeed "agree" to a 60-day CR to fund the government at sequestration levels in September (itself another budgeting win for them by any sane accounting) and take a hard-line stand at the debt ceiling deadline, they will be reversing their spring tactical sequence but replaying their uber-strategy: a brief retreat to ground where they can maximize their firepower.

Greg Sargent and other progressive-leaning budget fight chroniclers like Brian Beutler have consistently underestimated the GOP's ability to stick to hard-line demands -- and Democrats' propensity to yield.  Sargent was incredulous when Boehner announced he would let the debt ceiling deadline go and hold firm at the sequester deadline.  He's incredulous now that Republicans would threaten national default to defund Obamacare after the exchanges open in October:
So now, under this emerging plan, Republicans would be moving to demand a delay in Obamacare’s implementation — after the exchanges kick in — in exchange for not allowing the country to go into default, even though Boehner himself has already admitted the debt limit must be raised to avoid putting the full faith and credit of the U.S. at risk?

What all of this comes down to is that GOP leaders need to decide if they are going to level with their base, and and acknowledge that blocking Obamacare by using this fall’s confrontations as leverage is just a nonstarter, period, full stop — whether we’re talking about a government shutdown, the debt limit, or whatever.
It's true, as Sargent points out, that using terrorist tactics to defund Obamacare after the exchanges have opened seems untenable -- as does defunding Obamacare, period. Not even Obama would agree to that, no matter what the threat. So maybe the GOP will jigger the demand. But they will have some gob-smacking ask in November if Democrats agree to a two-month CR that will create a fiscal Everest.  Democrats would be crazy to do that. Better to force a government shutdown in September, when the stakes are lower.

If Boehner, McConnell et al say they won't raise the debt limit unless some multi-trillion dollar spending cut demand is met, and Obama says he won't negotiate over the debt ceiling, who you gonna believe? Based on the history of the last two years, my money is on the GOP leadership. They may not ultimately be able to live with their own "wins." But tactically, they have beaten Obama every time.

UPDATE: Greg Sargent tweets that I quoted a mischaracterization of what he said. That's true -- he didn't suggest that the enactment of the sequester wasn't a win in some sense for the GOP (however ultimately Pyrrhic).  But he does seem to think that Republicans won't force another high-stakes debt ceiling standoff. I wouldn't be too sure. I am shifting the argument to some extent, because I agree, per above, that Obama will not agree to defund Obamacare. But I wouldn't be surprised to see a differently defined debt ceiling demand.

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