Commentary Magazine


Topic: government shutdown

Can a Deadbeat America Stay on Top?

In the 19th century, individual deadbeats could go to prison and countries that defaulted on their debt could be invaded. To choose only two examples of many, Britain invaded Egypt in 1882 and the U.S. invaded Haiti in 1915 because those countries were not meeting their obligations to international debt-holders.

Today we take a far more relaxed view about owing money. The law makes bankruptcy relatively easy and painless for individuals and corporations–at least less painful than the prospect of debtors’ prison. There is no ethic of living within your means; instead we are now encouraged to run up debt, whether via a home mortgage or a credit card bill, and spend, spend, spend. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing—we don’t need to return to the Puritanical, anti-debt attitude of the 19th century. There is nothing wrong with a responsible amount of debt, whether for a family or a country.

But we are carrying our easy-going modern-day ethos a little too far when we run the risk of defaulting on the debt of the United States. Odds are we will see an 11th-hour reprieve from this calamity; at least the markets seem to think so, judging by the run-up of stocks in recent days. But, even if we avert the worst today, it is grossly irresponsible and harmful for lawmakers—meaning principally Tea Party hardliners in the House—to have allowed the deadline to come so close.

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In the 19th century, individual deadbeats could go to prison and countries that defaulted on their debt could be invaded. To choose only two examples of many, Britain invaded Egypt in 1882 and the U.S. invaded Haiti in 1915 because those countries were not meeting their obligations to international debt-holders.

Today we take a far more relaxed view about owing money. The law makes bankruptcy relatively easy and painless for individuals and corporations–at least less painful than the prospect of debtors’ prison. There is no ethic of living within your means; instead we are now encouraged to run up debt, whether via a home mortgage or a credit card bill, and spend, spend, spend. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing—we don’t need to return to the Puritanical, anti-debt attitude of the 19th century. There is nothing wrong with a responsible amount of debt, whether for a family or a country.

But we are carrying our easy-going modern-day ethos a little too far when we run the risk of defaulting on the debt of the United States. Odds are we will see an 11th-hour reprieve from this calamity; at least the markets seem to think so, judging by the run-up of stocks in recent days. But, even if we avert the worst today, it is grossly irresponsible and harmful for lawmakers—meaning principally Tea Party hardliners in the House—to have allowed the deadline to come so close.

Thankfully the U.S. armed forces are still strong enough—for the time being anyway—to prevent the Chinese military from showing up on our shores to collect the trillions we owe them. (But for how much longer? Given the increases in Chinese military spending and our own across-the-board cuts as a result of the mindless sequestration process, the trends are not favorable when it comes to the shifting balance of power in the Pacific.) But the U.S. cannot rely on military strength alone. Much of our economic strength is underpinned by the fact that the dollar is the favorite reserve currency in the world and by the fact that the U.S. is the favorite destination for foreign investment.

That strong financial position will not be sacrificed overnight. But it will gradually erode if we have too many more perils-of-Pauline flirtations with a sovereign debt default. Already China’s Xinhua news agency is using this occasion to call for the world to “de-Americanize.” Such calls are likely to fall on deaf ears—for now. But we cannot afford to make the world think there is any doubt about America’s ability and willingness to repay its debts. That is a fundamental obligation of government, which, if called into question, will erode our national standing and hence our national security. There is no excuse for the willingness of some lawmakers to drive us so close to the cliff’s edge.

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Credit Ratings and the Debt

Fitch, one of the three credit rating agencies (the other two are Standard and Poor’s and Moody’s), warned yesterday that it has put the federal government on “negative watch” with regard to its credit rating, which Fitch has now at its highest, AAA. Standard and Poor’s lowered the country’s credit rating two years ago, during the last debt ceiling crisis, to AA. Moody’s has not indicated any change in its rating is pending.

It is the job of credit rating agencies to assess the risk in any security, whether governmental or corporate, and reflect that risk in its rating. AAA means that there is virtually no risk of a failure to pay principal or interest. In Fitch’s rating system, the bottom is D, which means that the security is already in default and unlikely to have any worth in the future. Illinois, which has horrendous pension liabilities and a political deadlock on dealing with them, has the lowest rating of any state (A-, with a negative outlook, on Fitch). That’s still investment grade, but a full six notches below the top rating.

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Fitch, one of the three credit rating agencies (the other two are Standard and Poor’s and Moody’s), warned yesterday that it has put the federal government on “negative watch” with regard to its credit rating, which Fitch has now at its highest, AAA. Standard and Poor’s lowered the country’s credit rating two years ago, during the last debt ceiling crisis, to AA. Moody’s has not indicated any change in its rating is pending.

It is the job of credit rating agencies to assess the risk in any security, whether governmental or corporate, and reflect that risk in its rating. AAA means that there is virtually no risk of a failure to pay principal or interest. In Fitch’s rating system, the bottom is D, which means that the security is already in default and unlikely to have any worth in the future. Illinois, which has horrendous pension liabilities and a political deadlock on dealing with them, has the lowest rating of any state (A-, with a negative outlook, on Fitch). That’s still investment grade, but a full six notches below the top rating.

The agencies don’t always get it right, of course. They all completely failed to see the risk in mortgage-backed securities and rated them AAA. When the housing bubble collapsed, many of the subprime mortgages lurched into foreclosure. That made the bonds they (along with non-subprime mortgages) collateralized unsellable because no one knew the value of the underlying assets. Unsellable securities are, by economic definition, worthless. Unfortunately, many of the too-big-to-fail banks had loaded up on these mortgage-backed securities because of their AAA ratings and relatively good yields. When the market in those bonds cratered during the crisis, some of those banks became technically insolvent. The Treasury had to ride to the rescue with TARP money lest the entire United States banking system collapse. (Once the dust settled, and the market for mortgage-backed securities came back to life, the banks were able to pay back the TARP money.)

What would a cut in the government’s credit rating mean? Principally, it would be a huge political embarrassment. The United States is, by far, the richest country the world has ever known. The federal government’s annual income from taxes and fees ($2.7 trillion in 2013) exceeds the total GDP of all but five countries. So to have its credit rating knocked down would be an embarrassment perhaps on a par with Warren Buffett having his American Express card declined at a restaurant.

More significant, credit ratings determine relative interest rates. One of the iron laws of economics is that risk and reward must balance (at least in the long term). The greater the risk, the greater the reward, in terms of interest income, must be to get buyers to hold your paper. Since the United States owes $17 trillion, a mere one-percentage point increase in interest costs would add $170 billion to the cost of servicing the debt. (About one-third of the debt turns over every year.) With interest rates likely to begin to creep up as the Fed slowly cuts back on its stimulus, the percentage of federal revenues that have to be used for debt service will rise anyway. Any significant addition to that burden would seriously impact federal spending in other areas.

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Is the Shutdown Caucus Happy Now?

Yesterday’s farcical failure of House Speaker John Boehner to get enough members of his own party to commit to supporting his compromise measure to reopen the government and extend the debt ceiling told us all we needed to know about just how dysfunctional the Republican caucus has become. As I noted yesterday, Boehner’s measure was an acceptance of reality. The GOP has lost the shutdown fight and the only thing that is yet to be determined is the terms of surrender. Boehner tried to give his party a slightly larger fig leaf than the Senate Republicans were able to coax out of Harry Reid. But conservative hardliners were having none of it. Even at this late date and with the debt-ceiling deadline hanging over them, they wouldn’t go along with Boehner forcing him to withdraw his proposal and leaving the field to a Senate bill. That will likely mean that in order to avoid even the theoretical danger of default, Boehner may have to simply let the Senate bill onto the House floor for a vote where it will pass on the strength of Democratic votes along with a minority of Republicans.

In other words, after weeks of suffering the opprobrium of the mainstream media as well as increasing the distrust felt by many Americans for their party, what exactly did the GOP accomplish via the shutdown tactic?

Did trying a government shutdown defund ObamaCare? No. Did it force President Obama to make a single tangible concession to Republicans or give way on something that would help them fight the battle against growing deficits and debt or the ObamaCare fiasco further down the line? No. Did it weaken and further divide the Republican Party? Yes.

That leaves us with one more question: Are those that egged Boehner on to force a shutdown fight happy with these results?

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Yesterday’s farcical failure of House Speaker John Boehner to get enough members of his own party to commit to supporting his compromise measure to reopen the government and extend the debt ceiling told us all we needed to know about just how dysfunctional the Republican caucus has become. As I noted yesterday, Boehner’s measure was an acceptance of reality. The GOP has lost the shutdown fight and the only thing that is yet to be determined is the terms of surrender. Boehner tried to give his party a slightly larger fig leaf than the Senate Republicans were able to coax out of Harry Reid. But conservative hardliners were having none of it. Even at this late date and with the debt-ceiling deadline hanging over them, they wouldn’t go along with Boehner forcing him to withdraw his proposal and leaving the field to a Senate bill. That will likely mean that in order to avoid even the theoretical danger of default, Boehner may have to simply let the Senate bill onto the House floor for a vote where it will pass on the strength of Democratic votes along with a minority of Republicans.

In other words, after weeks of suffering the opprobrium of the mainstream media as well as increasing the distrust felt by many Americans for their party, what exactly did the GOP accomplish via the shutdown tactic?

Did trying a government shutdown defund ObamaCare? No. Did it force President Obama to make a single tangible concession to Republicans or give way on something that would help them fight the battle against growing deficits and debt or the ObamaCare fiasco further down the line? No. Did it weaken and further divide the Republican Party? Yes.

That leaves us with one more question: Are those that egged Boehner on to force a shutdown fight happy with these results?

It still remains to be seen whether Senators Ted Cruz and Mike Lee will fall on their swords and try to delay or prevent the Senate bill re-opening the government from passing. It is also possible that Speaker Boehner may try one more last, likely futile, parliamentary trick to cook up a deal that will be marginally more favorable to conservative interests. But the odds are, by the end of the week, we’ll be talking about Congress having to clean up the rubble left behind by the brutal battle these two and their House Tea Party friends fomented.

It’s also likely that they will take no responsibility for this crushing defeat. If anything, we can expect that they will blame their failure to come up with a strategy that had a chance of success or even an endgame that would allow their party a dignified path of retreat, on more reasonable Republicans — wrongly called RINOs by some Tea Partiers — who looked on in horror as they goaded Boehner to take the GOP over the cliff. But let’s make it clear that what is happening now isn’t the fault of those who said all along that this wouldn’t work. It’s the responsibility of a faction that simply wasn’t thinking straight about the best way to advance their goals and wound up doing more damage to the conservative movement than the Democrats could have ever done without their help.

As bad as it looks now, having wasted the country’s time in this manner won’t mean the end of the Republican Party. Like any party that doesn’t control the White House, it will remain divided and prey to factional disputes. But it will survive to fight another day and, with luck, will still be in position to hold onto the House and maybe even challenge the Democrats for control of the Senate next year. Perhaps once the shutdown is over, the nation will turn its full attention to the debacle of the ObamaCare rollout, which is where it should have been all along.

But neither should we forget who were the architects of defeat this week. John Boehner may be the poor soul who will have to preside over the formal surrender to the Democrats who will rightly crow about how they stood up to the Tea Party and defended the president’s signature health care legislation. Cruz and Lee and all those House members who thought this was a good idea owe their party and the country a better explanation than the one we’re likely to hear. And if either ever seeks the leadership of the party in 2016, they should be called to account for what they’ve done.

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Playing the Racism Card in the Shutdown

 The government shutdown has brought out the worst in our political class but the same is true of pundits. It’s bad enough when politicians call each other terrorists and hostage takers or, as Barbara Boxer did yesterday, to compare them to those who commit domestic abuse. We know that’s what Democrats have always thought of Republicans and it takes very little provocation to get them up on their high horses seeking to turn a political disagreement, however bitter it might be, into one in which the other side is depicted as pure scum rather than merely wrong. But the willingness of liberals to speak as if all those who disagree with Barack Obama are, almost by definition, racists, is about as low as it gets.

The attempt to paint the Tea Party as a warmed over version of the Ku Klux Klan has been a staple of liberal commentary for over three years. The fact that race has played virtually no part in the argument about the stimulus, ObamaCare and the current shutdown/debt ceiling crisis doesn’t deter the left from branding its foes as motivated by prejudice rather than just by different views about which decent people can disagree. That’s the conceit of much of Roger Simon’s column in Politico yesterday. Jonah Goldberg rightly called it “fairly trollish” and used it as an example of how formerly respected reporters turned columnists expose the liberal bias of much of the mainstream press in an excellent post on National Review’s The Corner blog. I made a similar point in a piece about a related topic on Sunday. But Simon’s piece exposes a different angle of the bias issue that I’d like to explore further.

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 The government shutdown has brought out the worst in our political class but the same is true of pundits. It’s bad enough when politicians call each other terrorists and hostage takers or, as Barbara Boxer did yesterday, to compare them to those who commit domestic abuse. We know that’s what Democrats have always thought of Republicans and it takes very little provocation to get them up on their high horses seeking to turn a political disagreement, however bitter it might be, into one in which the other side is depicted as pure scum rather than merely wrong. But the willingness of liberals to speak as if all those who disagree with Barack Obama are, almost by definition, racists, is about as low as it gets.

The attempt to paint the Tea Party as a warmed over version of the Ku Klux Klan has been a staple of liberal commentary for over three years. The fact that race has played virtually no part in the argument about the stimulus, ObamaCare and the current shutdown/debt ceiling crisis doesn’t deter the left from branding its foes as motivated by prejudice rather than just by different views about which decent people can disagree. That’s the conceit of much of Roger Simon’s column in Politico yesterday. Jonah Goldberg rightly called it “fairly trollish” and used it as an example of how formerly respected reporters turned columnists expose the liberal bias of much of the mainstream press in an excellent post on National Review’s The Corner blog. I made a similar point in a piece about a related topic on Sunday. But Simon’s piece exposes a different angle of the bias issue that I’d like to explore further.

The headline of his article was “Government shutdown unleashes racism” and it was accompanied by a photo of Tea Party demonstrator waving a Confederate flag in front of the White House at a demonstration this past weekend. But the headline promised more than Simon could deliver as the only points presented in the piece that backed up the accusation lodged in the headline was the flag and a comment made on radio by “Joe the Plumber,” the conservative pseudo celebrity of the 2008 campaign who said in his blog that America needed a “white Republican president” to replace Barack Obama. Other than these two items, Simon’s piece was just the standard denunciation of the Republican stand on the shutdown and it was that theme rather than racism riff that was its substance.

I happen to agree with Simon, and probably most other Americans, that what the plumber said is racist and has no place in our public discourse, though if liberal pundits weren’t recycling the writings of the artist otherwise known as Samuel Wurzelbacher, I’m not sure that most of us would be aware of them.

I also agree that there is something offensive about waving Confederate flags in just about any context other than a Civil War reenactment. I know that those from the Old South see it as part of their heritage but I think we should be able to evolve as a nation away from the “Gone With The Wind” view of the War Between the States. Which means that the rebel battle flag is, whether inhabitants of the old Confederacy like it or not, a symbol of racism and treason (a term I know I employ at the risk of generating a host of angry comments from those unreconstructed Confederates who think the Civil War was about state’s rights rather than slavery and who believe recycling Jefferson Davis’ views about the right of secession isn’t irrational). While the attempts of many liberals like Chris Matthews to interpret all criticism of President Obama as being motivated by racism is slanderous as well as utterly disingenuous, I will concede to Simon that anyone who waves the stars and bars in front of the Obamas’ current residence is pretty much asking to be labeled a bigot and should get no defense from any responsible conservative.

The bias in discussing this issue doesn’t stem from a desire to condemn people who do such stupid things. Rather it is in the unwillingness to place them in reasonable context.

After all, at the height of the public protests against the Iraq War, the mass demonstrations in major American cities convened by liberal groups included large numbers of people who were more or less the leftist moral equivalent of the flag waver at the White House. You didn’t have to work hard at these events to find considerable numbers of those demonstrators waving signs accusing George W. Bush and/or Dick Cheney of being Nazis. Nor was there any shortage of rhetoric from these people demanding the ouster of the government of the republic by any means necessary. Yet that didn’t stop the mainstream liberal media from depicting the demonstrations as being in no way tainted by extremists who were along for the ride or from asserting, probably rightly, that they were a reflection of a large segment of American public opinion.

Just as the vast majority of those who wanted out of Iraq were able to see the difference between Bush/Cheney and Hitler, playing the racism card against the Tea Party is intellectually lazy as well as wrong. Both the left and the right need to do a better job policing those on the margins of mainstream movements. But that is not the same thing as painting an entire ideological segment of the public as a function of the fever swamps. Call Republicans who hatched the shutdown strategy misguided or even stupid if you like, but associating all those who want to restrain government spending and taxing and to repeal Obamacare, with racism is slander, not a rational argument.

That liberal pundits can’t resist the temptation to play off this meme says more about media bias than it does about problems on the right.

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The GOP Chooses Surrender Over Suicide

After more than two weeks, it appears that a deal is in place to end the government shutdown and raise the debt ceiling. The bargain that has been agreed to in principle by the leaders of the Senate will kick the can down the round until early next year. It will end the current crisis before things get so messy that it will cease to be a political problem and become an economic one. But there isn’t much doubt about the fact that Republicans get virtually nothing out of it. After months of huffing and puffing about ObamaCare as well as the debt, the GOP is now in a position where it has to choose between spiraling the country into what could become an economic crisis or to concede that it was basically all for nothing.

At the moment it appears that House Speaker John Boehner will ask members of his caucus to vote for a House version of the deal that is so similar to that of the Senate that any distinction is purely theoretical. But some of the conservatives who goaded Boehner into setting off this showdown are saying they won’t wave the white flag and hand this victory to President Obama. Indeed, one of them said this to the New York Times about supporting the Senate plan:

“We’ve got a name for it in the House: it’s called the Senate surrender caucus,” said Representative Tim Huelskamp, Republican of Kansas. “Anybody who would vote for that in the House as Republican would virtually guarantee a primary challenger.”

Huelskamp is blowing smoke about a primary challenge for everyone who votes with Boehner but he’s right that what he and other Republicans are being asked to do today is to surrender. But the question for him is the same one that could have been posed every day throughout this debate. What’s the alternative? Having started a fight without a strategy to win it or an endgame that could allow them to opt out of it without looking servile, it’s a little late to complain about a surrender caucus when the only other choice is a suicide caucus since allowing the debt ceiling to expire or to continue the shutdown indefinitely is not only bad politics but a blueprint for, as our John Steele Gordon pointed out yesterday, another recession or worse.

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After more than two weeks, it appears that a deal is in place to end the government shutdown and raise the debt ceiling. The bargain that has been agreed to in principle by the leaders of the Senate will kick the can down the round until early next year. It will end the current crisis before things get so messy that it will cease to be a political problem and become an economic one. But there isn’t much doubt about the fact that Republicans get virtually nothing out of it. After months of huffing and puffing about ObamaCare as well as the debt, the GOP is now in a position where it has to choose between spiraling the country into what could become an economic crisis or to concede that it was basically all for nothing.

At the moment it appears that House Speaker John Boehner will ask members of his caucus to vote for a House version of the deal that is so similar to that of the Senate that any distinction is purely theoretical. But some of the conservatives who goaded Boehner into setting off this showdown are saying they won’t wave the white flag and hand this victory to President Obama. Indeed, one of them said this to the New York Times about supporting the Senate plan:

“We’ve got a name for it in the House: it’s called the Senate surrender caucus,” said Representative Tim Huelskamp, Republican of Kansas. “Anybody who would vote for that in the House as Republican would virtually guarantee a primary challenger.”

Huelskamp is blowing smoke about a primary challenge for everyone who votes with Boehner but he’s right that what he and other Republicans are being asked to do today is to surrender. But the question for him is the same one that could have been posed every day throughout this debate. What’s the alternative? Having started a fight without a strategy to win it or an endgame that could allow them to opt out of it without looking servile, it’s a little late to complain about a surrender caucus when the only other choice is a suicide caucus since allowing the debt ceiling to expire or to continue the shutdown indefinitely is not only bad politics but a blueprint for, as our John Steele Gordon pointed out yesterday, another recession or worse.

At this point, the problem is no longer about who is to blame for this.

Yes, as I have noted many times, blaming it all on the Tea Party doesn’t tell us much about how it happened. President Obama and the Democrats are being just as ideological as the GOP when they say they will not accept the defunding of ObamaCare. It’s also true that the president has been hoping for a shutdown since 2011 because he thought it would damage Republicans. His refusal to negotiate made the standoff happen and his party is also suffering a decline in public approval as a result of it.

But let’s also not deceive ourselves about which side gave Obama what he wanted. Conservatives like Ted Cruz and Mike Lee pushed for a showdown because they assured us that if Republicans hung tough, the president would blink. Much to the dismay of many more sober conservatives, Speaker Boehner went along with them and the GOP did wind up hanging as tough as the Tea Partiers had demanded. But as just about everybody who didn’t drink Cruz’s Kool-Aid predicted, the Democrats also stood their ground. With control of the Senate and the White House, the Democrats have a clear advantage over the Republicans and used it. If Boehner is now looking for the exit sign from the dead end that his party’s hardliners backed him into, it is because there really isn’t a choice.

No doubt conservatives will try and cling to some of the fig leaves left the in the Senate and House versions of the deal and say they accomplished something. But this will be as disingenuous as the Democrats’ claim to be the adults in the room. This is a Republican defeat pure and simple and there’s no way to sugarcoat it. And they’re accepting it because the alternative is to do the country material damage and to dig an even deeper political hole than the one they’ve already dug for themselves.

If there is anything to be retrieved from the rubble of the shutdown for Republicans it is the hope that the budget conference that is part of the deal might enable Rep. Paul Ryan — the voice of principle and sanity in the GOP caucus — to move the discussion from the simplistic demands of Cruz and Lee to a more productive debate about entitlement reform and debt that will strengthen the party’s position.

But that’s a discussion for another day. The real story now is about a GOP decision between surrender and suicide and their inevitable vote in favor of the former. It’s a bitter day for Boehner but the ones who should really be eating crow are Cruz, Lee and all those who backed him into this foolish gambit.

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The Democratic Moment Won’t Last

With days to go before the artificial deadline set for the national debt ceiling to expire, there’s little doubt that Democrats believe the political pendulum has swung in their direction. Polls show them to be the beneficiaries of the disgust felt over the government shutdown and the general dysfunction evident in Washington. But they are just as encouraged by what they not reasonably conclude is division in the ranks of their foes. Republicans still seem split between those who are working to find a way out of the dead end that advocates of the shutdown have steered them into and those who are still insisting that what is needed is more determination to stick to their principles on the debt and ObamaCare while waiting for the Democrats to blink even if it is more likely that hell will freeze over first. President Obama spent the last two years daring the Republicans to shut down the government in the hope that it would be a political disaster for the GOP. Now that he seems to have been proven right, Democrats believe a moment has arrived in which they may not only rout the Tea Party but perhaps alter the dynamic of budget negotiations that have seemed to run against their big government beliefs for the past few years.

That’s what motivated Senator Harry Reid to refuse to accept what might have been considered a Republican surrender offer over the weekend. Rather than accept a so-called clean bill that would reopen the government and lift the current debt ceiling with no conditions as they had been calling for over the last month, Democrats raised the ante in the talks about finding a way out of the current impasse. Now they are demanding a relatively quick end to sequester budget cuts and are refusing even to accept a permanent repeal of the ObamaCare medical device tax, a face-saving measure that would allow the Republicans to act as if they had not been completely defeated.

Reid and the president are hoping Republicans are sufficiently spooked by the prospect of a default to surrender on those humiliating terms. But as strong as their position seems to be today, Democrats are still very much in danger of overplaying their hand. That’s not just because if the nation does slide into economic difficulties as a result of the expiration of the current debt ceiling and the shutdown the administration and its allies will be blamed along with the GOP. But by moving the discussion from what is perceived to be an unreasonable Republican demand to shut down the government if ObamaCare isn’t defunded to one about expanding debt and spending, Democrats are shifting the struggle back onto strong ground for their opponents.

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With days to go before the artificial deadline set for the national debt ceiling to expire, there’s little doubt that Democrats believe the political pendulum has swung in their direction. Polls show them to be the beneficiaries of the disgust felt over the government shutdown and the general dysfunction evident in Washington. But they are just as encouraged by what they not reasonably conclude is division in the ranks of their foes. Republicans still seem split between those who are working to find a way out of the dead end that advocates of the shutdown have steered them into and those who are still insisting that what is needed is more determination to stick to their principles on the debt and ObamaCare while waiting for the Democrats to blink even if it is more likely that hell will freeze over first. President Obama spent the last two years daring the Republicans to shut down the government in the hope that it would be a political disaster for the GOP. Now that he seems to have been proven right, Democrats believe a moment has arrived in which they may not only rout the Tea Party but perhaps alter the dynamic of budget negotiations that have seemed to run against their big government beliefs for the past few years.

That’s what motivated Senator Harry Reid to refuse to accept what might have been considered a Republican surrender offer over the weekend. Rather than accept a so-called clean bill that would reopen the government and lift the current debt ceiling with no conditions as they had been calling for over the last month, Democrats raised the ante in the talks about finding a way out of the current impasse. Now they are demanding a relatively quick end to sequester budget cuts and are refusing even to accept a permanent repeal of the ObamaCare medical device tax, a face-saving measure that would allow the Republicans to act as if they had not been completely defeated.

Reid and the president are hoping Republicans are sufficiently spooked by the prospect of a default to surrender on those humiliating terms. But as strong as their position seems to be today, Democrats are still very much in danger of overplaying their hand. That’s not just because if the nation does slide into economic difficulties as a result of the expiration of the current debt ceiling and the shutdown the administration and its allies will be blamed along with the GOP. But by moving the discussion from what is perceived to be an unreasonable Republican demand to shut down the government if ObamaCare isn’t defunded to one about expanding debt and spending, Democrats are shifting the struggle back onto strong ground for their opponents.

The Republican stand on funding the government is widely seen as being driven by an ideological position on ObamaCare even if the other side is no less ideological in their insistence on preserving the president’s signature health care legislation despite its disastrous rollout and the deleterious impact it will have on the economy. That places them at a real disadvantage so long as the question is finding a way to reopen the government and ensure that the government doesn’t default.

But once the discussion turns, as Reid’s attempt to do away with sequester cuts indicates, to whether Congress will allow the government to go back to the free spending ways that actually got the country into this mess, the Democratic advantage disappears. While the sequester is not the smartest way to cut government spending and has done some damage, especially to national defense, it is not unpopular because the American people have understandably come to the conclusion that it is only by such draconian means that the nation’s spending addiction can be brought under control.

Once we stop arguing about whether the government will continue to operate or whether the national debt will be paid, the question becomes one of whether Washington is capable of reforming the entitlement spending that is sinking the nation in a sea of red ink and reducing the size of government to one that can be paid without increasing the debt. And that is where the Republicans have not only the stronger argument but also the ability to rally a majority to their side.

The question for the Republican Party isn’t really so much whether Senator Ted Cruz and the Tea Party will cause it to crash and burn and loose the 2014 midterms, as it is whether it can keep the national discussion focused on taxes and spending. If, fueled by their belief that the GOP is a rudderless and sinking ship, Obama and Reid choose to try and roll back the sequester cuts and refloat the liberal agenda in the coming weeks and months, what they will be doing is actually reviving the Republicans rather than placing a stake in their hearts. The Democratic moment we are currently experiencing is real but that irresistible liberal temptation is an almost sure guarantee that it will pass.

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RE: Shutdown Won’t Stop Park Ranger Meeting

On Thursday, I wrote about the poor optics of the decision of the Association of National Park Rangers to go ahead and hold their convention despite the government shutdown. The point was that it was hypocritical for a group whose members that have been central to the administration’s shutdown theatrics to stage a gathering at which many of the speakers would be government employees who would be coming on government time, if not the government dime.

However, as several correspondents have written, ANPR is a private organization, and its members are traveling to it at their own expense. The event is not, strictly speaking, a government function or event. While my post did not state that it was, given that the distinction was not fully explained, readers may have been left with that impression.

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On Thursday, I wrote about the poor optics of the decision of the Association of National Park Rangers to go ahead and hold their convention despite the government shutdown. The point was that it was hypocritical for a group whose members that have been central to the administration’s shutdown theatrics to stage a gathering at which many of the speakers would be government employees who would be coming on government time, if not the government dime.

However, as several correspondents have written, ANPR is a private organization, and its members are traveling to it at their own expense. The event is not, strictly speaking, a government function or event. While my post did not state that it was, given that the distinction was not fully explained, readers may have been left with that impression.

Nevertheless, the point about the inappropriate timing of the convention and the distressing use of the Park Rangers by the administration, still holds. While the ANPR website took pains to inform that the event would continue “despite the current federal government shutdown,” it is good to see that the ANPR website now includes a caveat that the “the program may require changes due to some speakers being unable to attend because of the government shutdown,” although program changes will not address the poor optics of the event.

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Why Ted Cruz is Now Discredited

I pointed out the other day that President Obama has unquestionably been hurt by the government shutdown, but Republicans have been hurt more.  

How bad is it for the GOP? 

The most recent Gallup poll shows the GOP is viewed favorably by 28 percent of Americans–down 10 points since September and the lowest number for either party since Gallup began asking the question in 1992. “The Republican Party is clearly taking a bigger political hit from Americans thus far in the unfolding saga,” according to the Gallup analysis.

Then there’s a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, which (as Rod Dreher helpfully summarizes) shows the following:

  • Only 24 percent of those polled have a positive view of the GOP. Fifty-three percent have a negative view–a differential of 29 percent.
  • By contrast, 39 percent have a positive view of the Democratic party. Forty percent have a negative view–a differential of one percent.
  • Twenty-one percent have a positive view of the Tea Party versus 47 percent who have a negative view. 
  • Forty-seven percent say they want to see Democrats control Congress while 39 percent want to see the GOP control Congress.
  • Fifty-three percent believe the GOP in Congress is most responsible for the shutdown; 31 percent believe President Obama is. Thirteen percent believe both sides are equally at fault. Three percent don’t know.
  • Seventy percent say that the congressional Republicans are putting their own agenda over the good of the country; 51 percent say Obama is doing the same.
  • Forty-three percent say ObamaCare is a bad idea; 38 percent say it’s a good idea.
  • Thirty-nine percent favor defunding ObamaCare entirely, while only 23 percent believe this so strongly that it’s worth shutting the government down. Fifty percent oppose defunding.

Question 8 in the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows that the percentage of those surveyed who want a Congress controlled by Republicans is now less than 40 percent–a low since the fall of 2009. Read More

I pointed out the other day that President Obama has unquestionably been hurt by the government shutdown, but Republicans have been hurt more.  

How bad is it for the GOP? 

The most recent Gallup poll shows the GOP is viewed favorably by 28 percent of Americans–down 10 points since September and the lowest number for either party since Gallup began asking the question in 1992. “The Republican Party is clearly taking a bigger political hit from Americans thus far in the unfolding saga,” according to the Gallup analysis.

Then there’s a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, which (as Rod Dreher helpfully summarizes) shows the following:

  • Only 24 percent of those polled have a positive view of the GOP. Fifty-three percent have a negative view–a differential of 29 percent.
  • By contrast, 39 percent have a positive view of the Democratic party. Forty percent have a negative view–a differential of one percent.
  • Twenty-one percent have a positive view of the Tea Party versus 47 percent who have a negative view. 
  • Forty-seven percent say they want to see Democrats control Congress while 39 percent want to see the GOP control Congress.
  • Fifty-three percent believe the GOP in Congress is most responsible for the shutdown; 31 percent believe President Obama is. Thirteen percent believe both sides are equally at fault. Three percent don’t know.
  • Seventy percent say that the congressional Republicans are putting their own agenda over the good of the country; 51 percent say Obama is doing the same.
  • Forty-three percent say ObamaCare is a bad idea; 38 percent say it’s a good idea.
  • Thirty-nine percent favor defunding ObamaCare entirely, while only 23 percent believe this so strongly that it’s worth shutting the government down. Fifty percent oppose defunding.

Question 8 in the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows that the percentage of those surveyed who want a Congress controlled by Republicans is now less than 40 percent–a low since the fall of 2009. As for the populist uprising against the Affordable Care Act that Senator Cruz promised? There’s evidence that support for ObamaCare has actually increased (see this analysis). 

As Jonathan (and Nate Silver) rightly point out, it’s far too early to draw definitive conclusions. Polls provide us with snapshots in time. They certainly don’t tell us everything. But they do tell us something. And the trends seem clear, and clearly worrisome, for the GOP. Which brings me to the concern many of us had with the approach taken by Senators Cruz & Co.–a group of men who, you’ll recall, demanded that Republicans shut down the federal government if the president didn’t agree to defund his signature domestic achievement, the Affordable Care Act. 

The concerns about the approach used by Senator Cruz were several-fold: (a) it was misleading (there was no chance the Affordable Care Act would be defunded); (b) it was irresponsible (Senators Cruz, Rubio and Lee accused conservatives who disagreed with the Cruz approach as being de facto supporters of the Affordable Care Act); and (c) it chose to fight the president on the weakest available ground (as unpopular as ObamaCare is, the defunding idea was never popular with the public). It also deflected attention away from the disastrous rollout of the ObamaCare exchanges and blew to pieces a far more plausible strategy, which was to focus on delaying for a year implementation of the individual mandate (which has widespread popular support).

“I think it was very possible for us to delay the implementation of ObamaCare for a year until Cruz came along and crashed and burned,” according to conservative anti-tax activist Grover Norquist.

More broadly, some of us on the right were concerned that this kind of brinksmanship approach tends to hurt, not help, the party squaring off against the president, who brings to the battle tremendous institutional advantages. And while engaging in this fight wouldn’t produce any particularly meaningful results, what it might well accomplish is erasing the political advantage Republicans had built up over many months. That, too, appears to be happening. According to Gallup, the sharp drop in support for Republicans since September “contrasts with previous Gallup findings from just before the government shutdown showing the Republican Party making up ground on a few key issues.”

Such are the bitter fruits that resulted from the Suicide Caucus. But in all of this bad news there is something hopeful to be found: Ted Cruz has become increasingly toxic and may well have discredited himself with many Republicans and conservatives. He certainly should have.

Mr. Cruz’s actions weren’t wrong because they failed. They were wrong because they were ill-considered, imprudent, selfish, and harmful to his party and the conservative cause. He didn’t achieve anything he insisted he would–and, in the process, he set back conservatism in several respects. Liberals must be thanking their lucky stars for the junior senator from Texas. 

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Assessing the GOP’s Shutdown Blues

If Washington conventional wisdom is right this morning, Republicans are about to start walking away from the ledge onto which they climbed with the government shutdown. Indications are that the House Republican proposals for a short-term extension of the debt ceiling will be the starting point for talks that will end the shutdown as well as ensure that the U.S. doesn’t default. It’s far from clear what the GOP will get in exchange for giving up their leverage over budget negotiations, but no one expects it to be much. If so, President Obama’s stonewalling tactics in which he dared the Republicans to shut down the government will be vindicated. And hardly a soul is talking about the fate of ObamaCare, the defunding of which was supposed to be the whole point of the exercise.

Why is it ending now if indeed that is what is happening? Part of the reason is a sense on the part of House Speaker John Boehner that he’s played all the cards in his hand and that brushing up against the artificial debt ceiling deadline would be a political error as well as bad for the country. But the negative fallout from the shutdown can’t be ignored as an explanation for why the GOP leadership has decided to cut its losses. The NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey released yesterday had the worst results yet for Republicans, with the gap between those who blame them for the shutdown and those who blame the Democrats now at more than 20 percent. While President Obama and everyone else in Washington looks bad too, the Republican Party’s approval ratings are now at almost historic lows. Given the rapid dive in the GOP’s numbers in recent weeks, it is impossible to escape the conclusion that this is the result of the shutdown that was forced on the party by Senator Ted Cruz and other hard-line conservatives over the objections of Boehner and others.

This gives those of us who have said all along that it was a mistake to force a confrontation over defunding ObamaCare, which was never going to happen, a chance for an “I told you so” or two. But any such recriminations on the part of conservatives who were derided as RINOs by Cruz’s suicide caucus and their devoted followers are being drowned out by the near-hysterical triumphalism emanating from MSNBC and other liberal bastions over the NBC/WSJ poll. But before Democrats start making plans for what they will do when they take back control of the House next year, a moment of perspective is in order. As bad as this looks for the Republicans right now, it’s not likely that anything that happens this week will affect the composition of the next Congress.

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If Washington conventional wisdom is right this morning, Republicans are about to start walking away from the ledge onto which they climbed with the government shutdown. Indications are that the House Republican proposals for a short-term extension of the debt ceiling will be the starting point for talks that will end the shutdown as well as ensure that the U.S. doesn’t default. It’s far from clear what the GOP will get in exchange for giving up their leverage over budget negotiations, but no one expects it to be much. If so, President Obama’s stonewalling tactics in which he dared the Republicans to shut down the government will be vindicated. And hardly a soul is talking about the fate of ObamaCare, the defunding of which was supposed to be the whole point of the exercise.

Why is it ending now if indeed that is what is happening? Part of the reason is a sense on the part of House Speaker John Boehner that he’s played all the cards in his hand and that brushing up against the artificial debt ceiling deadline would be a political error as well as bad for the country. But the negative fallout from the shutdown can’t be ignored as an explanation for why the GOP leadership has decided to cut its losses. The NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey released yesterday had the worst results yet for Republicans, with the gap between those who blame them for the shutdown and those who blame the Democrats now at more than 20 percent. While President Obama and everyone else in Washington looks bad too, the Republican Party’s approval ratings are now at almost historic lows. Given the rapid dive in the GOP’s numbers in recent weeks, it is impossible to escape the conclusion that this is the result of the shutdown that was forced on the party by Senator Ted Cruz and other hard-line conservatives over the objections of Boehner and others.

This gives those of us who have said all along that it was a mistake to force a confrontation over defunding ObamaCare, which was never going to happen, a chance for an “I told you so” or two. But any such recriminations on the part of conservatives who were derided as RINOs by Cruz’s suicide caucus and their devoted followers are being drowned out by the near-hysterical triumphalism emanating from MSNBC and other liberal bastions over the NBC/WSJ poll. But before Democrats start making plans for what they will do when they take back control of the House next year, a moment of perspective is in order. As bad as this looks for the Republicans right now, it’s not likely that anything that happens this week will affect the composition of the next Congress.

For a sober analysis of just how much the Democrats have gained from this episode, it’s instructive to turn to a liberal voice that has been silent for much of the last year: Nate Silver. Silver, the liberal statistician who rocketed to fame as the New York Times’s peerless blogger/prognosticator left the Grey Lady for what will presumably be further fame and fortune at ESPN (he started out as a baseball analyst before he began handicapping elections). But until his new sports site goes up, he’s resurrected his FiveThirtyEight.com blog and weighed in on the shutdown impasse yesterday with some insightful comments about recent events that should give liberals proclaiming victory some food for thought.

His half-dozen bullet points about the partisan confrontation may be debated, but I think they are largely right.

First, is his belief that the media is overhyping the impact of the shutdown. In a 24/7 news cycle, every big story seems like World War Three but, as Silver points out, other huge stories have already come and gone in the past several months like Syria, the IRS Scandal, Benghazi, or even last winter’s fiscal cliff showdown, and if you watch cable news or read the leading dailies, it’s almost as if they never happened. The notion that anything that happens this week or next, short of a real U.S. default (which is not going to happen no matter how the negotiations go) will have much of an impact on November 2014 is simply unfounded.

Just as interesting is his pointing out that the inspiration for President Obama’s decision to dare the GOP to shut down the government shouldn’t give Democrats much comfort. The 1995 government shutdown is widely believed to have badly damaged the Republicans and strengthened President Clinton. As Silver correctly notes, the GOP was not really hurt by the shutdown, as they held onto Congress the next year. There may be some who think it was a major factor in re-electing Bill Clinton in 1996 but count me among those who, like Silver, believe Bob Dole never had a prayer of being elected president, shutdown or no shutdown.

Third, Silver reminds us that the chances of the Democrats winning the midterm elections next year are very low. Given the paucity of competitive House seats (the Senate is very much in play with Democrats standing to lose seats) it would take a wave election for President Obama’s allies to succeed. But such a victory would be virtually unprecedented since it is virtually impossible for an incumbent president’s party to gain seats in the middle of his second term.

Silver also debunks the notion that this is purely the result of Republican gerrymandering since the allocation of seats is more the function of the way the two major parties have split along geographical lines as much ideological ones. For an excellent analysis about why blaming political extremism on gerrymandering is a myth read Sean Trende’s piece in RealClearPolitics.com today. As Trende notes, gerrymandering is an effect, not a cause, of partisanship. But the bottom line is that no matter how much bad press Republicans are getting today, the impact next year is likely to be minimal if not overwhelmed by subsequent events that may not be as favorable to Democrats.

Last, it is way too soon to understand what the result of this latest showdown will be and looking to ephemeral poll numbers (especially since they also have bad results for Obama and the Democrats) is a fool’s errand.

Republicans would do well to ponder how little was accomplished in the last two weeks as well as the responsibility of Cruz and others who are now in the process of walking away from the train wreck that Boehner will have to clean up. But while Obama and the liberals may be getting the better of the tussle today, there is no reason to believe any of it will help them unseat House Republicans.

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Public Revulsion at Our Political Institutions

The American Enterprise Institute’s Karlyn Bowman and Andrew Rugg, in examining the trends of recent polls, find trust and confidence in government to handle domestic and international problems at their lowest level in 40 years. Two-thirds of the public say they are dissatisfied with the way the nation is being governed. Anger is rising, and the number of people who say government is too powerful is at an all-time high.

One recent poll found President Obama’s approval rating down to 38 percent, the lowest of his presidency. A survey by the Gallup organization shows the GOP is viewed favorably by just 28 percent of Americans, the lowest number for either party since Gallup began asking the question in 1992. The approval rating of Congress is 11 percent. And only 18 percent of Americans are satisfied with the way the nation is being governed, the lowest government satisfaction rating in Gallup’s history of asking the question dating back to 1971.

“What is stunning about these results is just how hard and how quickly public attitudes have landed on the shutdown,” according to Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster. He said the poll showed “a broad disgust for the political system.”

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The American Enterprise Institute’s Karlyn Bowman and Andrew Rugg, in examining the trends of recent polls, find trust and confidence in government to handle domestic and international problems at their lowest level in 40 years. Two-thirds of the public say they are dissatisfied with the way the nation is being governed. Anger is rising, and the number of people who say government is too powerful is at an all-time high.

One recent poll found President Obama’s approval rating down to 38 percent, the lowest of his presidency. A survey by the Gallup organization shows the GOP is viewed favorably by just 28 percent of Americans, the lowest number for either party since Gallup began asking the question in 1992. The approval rating of Congress is 11 percent. And only 18 percent of Americans are satisfied with the way the nation is being governed, the lowest government satisfaction rating in Gallup’s history of asking the question dating back to 1971.

“What is stunning about these results is just how hard and how quickly public attitudes have landed on the shutdown,” according to Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster. He said the poll showed “a broad disgust for the political system.”

That’s certainly understandable, given the governing fiasco that we find ourselves in. And as a conservative, I have sympathy with those who are worried about the size, scope, and power of the federal government. 

At the same time, anyone who believes politics matters and, at its best, involves the (imperfect) pursuit of justice and the common good has to find this present moment discouraging and disquieting. However we got here and whoever is to blame–and we all have our opinions about the hierarchy of responsibility–the effects are badly damaging the case of those who believe, with the founders, that “the safety and happiness of society are the objects at which all political institutions aim.” Right now our political institutions are held in contempt. That is not a good place to be for a self-governing republic.

Now it needs to be said that the public has some complicity in all this, since our political institutions largely reflect their competing–and in some instances, contradictory–passions and desires. They are the ones who elect Louie Gohmert and Nancy Pelosi, Barbara Boxer and Rand Paul, a conservative GOP House and a liberal Democratic president, and expect them to find common ground. It’s easier said than done. We’re dealing with public officials who represent constituents who don’t simply hold different policy views; they hold fundamentally different worldviews. Still, it is the job of our elected representatives, and especially the president, to reconcile these things; to use reason and judgment to temper passions. Because a lot is at stake. 

Government is, in the words of the 19th century economist Alfred Marshall, “the most precious of human institutions, and no care can be too great to be spent on enabling it to do its work in the best way.” A precious human institution is being degraded and debased by those to whom we have entrusted its care. To say so is an entirely reasonable judgment. And a damning one, too.

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Another Dem “No” Could Be a Big Mistake

After weeks of heeding the calls to confrontation from their most hard-line members, the House Republican leadership has taken a step toward at least a partial settlement of the current fiscal standoff. The question is: can President Obama and the Democrats get off their high horse and accept this olive branch? Leading up to today’s meeting between the president and a group of Republicans, every indication is that the answer is no.

Democrats will argue that the Republican proposal, which would grant a six-week extension of the debt ceiling (with no spending cuts) while setting in place a process for resolving the other conflict over the budget that has led to a government shutdown, doesn’t satisfy the president’s demands. It leaves the government shutdown in place and obligates the president and his Democratic allies to negotiate with the GOP over both the budget and the debt. As such, they may well turn it down and demand either a one-year debt extension offered by Senate Democrats or simply hunker down and stick to their ultimatum requiring a complete Republican surrender on both the shutdown and the debt before the White House will deign to negotiate about anything else. Such a response would be consistent with the administration’s belief (backed up by opinion polls) that they are winning the shutdown and that all that is needed for the president to complete his triumph is just to stick to his position and wait for House Speaker John Boehner and his allies to give up.

But ten days into the shutdown, it’s time for the president to start re-evaluating his position. As much as the Democrats are getting less of the blame for the mess in Washington than the Republicans, the president’s 37 percent job approval rating should remind them that although the GOP is getting battered, nobody is winning in this fight. And if the president can’t find a way to accept the Republicans’ debt ceiling extension offer, then he may discover that the political fallout will start to even out.

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After weeks of heeding the calls to confrontation from their most hard-line members, the House Republican leadership has taken a step toward at least a partial settlement of the current fiscal standoff. The question is: can President Obama and the Democrats get off their high horse and accept this olive branch? Leading up to today’s meeting between the president and a group of Republicans, every indication is that the answer is no.

Democrats will argue that the Republican proposal, which would grant a six-week extension of the debt ceiling (with no spending cuts) while setting in place a process for resolving the other conflict over the budget that has led to a government shutdown, doesn’t satisfy the president’s demands. It leaves the government shutdown in place and obligates the president and his Democratic allies to negotiate with the GOP over both the budget and the debt. As such, they may well turn it down and demand either a one-year debt extension offered by Senate Democrats or simply hunker down and stick to their ultimatum requiring a complete Republican surrender on both the shutdown and the debt before the White House will deign to negotiate about anything else. Such a response would be consistent with the administration’s belief (backed up by opinion polls) that they are winning the shutdown and that all that is needed for the president to complete his triumph is just to stick to his position and wait for House Speaker John Boehner and his allies to give up.

But ten days into the shutdown, it’s time for the president to start re-evaluating his position. As much as the Democrats are getting less of the blame for the mess in Washington than the Republicans, the president’s 37 percent job approval rating should remind them that although the GOP is getting battered, nobody is winning in this fight. And if the president can’t find a way to accept the Republicans’ debt ceiling extension offer, then he may discover that the political fallout will start to even out.

Boehner’s strategy is fraught with danger for both parties. Though the House leadership appears willing to try and start finding a way out of the current impasse, many hard-line GOP conservatives are still reluctant to compromise and might actually vote against Boehner’s proposal if it came to a vote because there are no conditions attached to the debt limit extension. That would set up a theoretical situation in which the House leadership would be dependent on Democratic votes and therefore allow the president’s allies to scuttle the compromise and embarrass Boehner.

Just as troubling for Boehner is a scenario in which the president turns him down and forces him to get closer to the artificial debt deadline of next Wednesday. That would, as the president hopes, probably increase the pressure on the House to bend to the president’s demands.

But blindly sticking to his position of no negotiations until the House gives in on both the debt ceiling and the shutdown may be more dangerous for President Obama than he thinks.

So long as the public’s focus has been on Tea Party leaders like Senator Ted Cruz and their unrealistic (if justified) demands that ObamaCare be scrapped in exchange for a continuing resolution to fund the government, the White House wins. But once the spotlight shifts irrevocably to the affable Boehner and his compromise efforts, all the rhetoric emanating from the White House and Democratic leaders about hostage taking and extremism begins to sound a bit hysterical. It also makes the president’s refusal to negotiate sound that much more shrill and partisan.

Today’s compromise proposal may not be the beginning of the end of this battle. But it may be, to use one of Winston Churchill’s lines, the end of the beginning. At some point, the president is going to realize that not talking and demanding surrender are unattractive to most of the American public. As a second-term president with mounting problems at home and abroad, he’d be wise to find a way out of this mess before the turning point arrives and more Americans start blaming him, as they perhaps should have done all along.

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No Deal Yet? Blame Obama’s Credibility Gap

This morning House Republicans are meeting to discuss ideas floated by Rep. Paul Ryan to avert a showdown over the debt ceiling. Ryan, who outlined his proposal in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal is, as we have come to expect of him, the leading voice of reason in the GOP caucus, and the White House ought to seize on this opportunity to avert what it keeps telling us is a fiscal catastrophe that will happen on Oct. 17 if the Republicans don’t surrender. But since we already know that President Obama is far more interested in pushing confrontation with the Republicans because he believes it to be in his political interests, there’s little chance of that happening.

While more conservatives are coming to grips with the fact that they are not going to be able to defund ObamaCare, it’s also unclear whether enough House Republicans will get behind Ryan’s scheme that trades off a short-term extension of the debt ceiling along with reform of Medicare and a start on comprehensive tax reform. These are core conservative ideas that are focused on the underlying problems behind the deficit—entitlements and tax unfairness—that are opposed by Democrats who seek to preserve an indefensible status quo.

But if Ryan is having trouble rallying his party behind his proposal it is in no small measure due to the fact that a lot of Republicans just aren’t buying the hype about next week’s debt ceiling deadline. Nor is there any massive public groundswell of fear pushing them to give in as the president says they must. That is causing some in the liberal mainstream media to recycle their “debt denier” slur first trotted out last winter during the fiscal cliff showdown. But, as Politico noted in a feature published today, the reason why Republicans aren’t running scared is what the site aptly terms “Obama’s Chicken Little challenge.” After repeatedly falsely prophesying doom and destruction about the sequester and the government shutdown, the nation, let alone the GOP, just isn’t buying his debt ceiling warnings.

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This morning House Republicans are meeting to discuss ideas floated by Rep. Paul Ryan to avert a showdown over the debt ceiling. Ryan, who outlined his proposal in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal is, as we have come to expect of him, the leading voice of reason in the GOP caucus, and the White House ought to seize on this opportunity to avert what it keeps telling us is a fiscal catastrophe that will happen on Oct. 17 if the Republicans don’t surrender. But since we already know that President Obama is far more interested in pushing confrontation with the Republicans because he believes it to be in his political interests, there’s little chance of that happening.

While more conservatives are coming to grips with the fact that they are not going to be able to defund ObamaCare, it’s also unclear whether enough House Republicans will get behind Ryan’s scheme that trades off a short-term extension of the debt ceiling along with reform of Medicare and a start on comprehensive tax reform. These are core conservative ideas that are focused on the underlying problems behind the deficit—entitlements and tax unfairness—that are opposed by Democrats who seek to preserve an indefensible status quo.

But if Ryan is having trouble rallying his party behind his proposal it is in no small measure due to the fact that a lot of Republicans just aren’t buying the hype about next week’s debt ceiling deadline. Nor is there any massive public groundswell of fear pushing them to give in as the president says they must. That is causing some in the liberal mainstream media to recycle their “debt denier” slur first trotted out last winter during the fiscal cliff showdown. But, as Politico noted in a feature published today, the reason why Republicans aren’t running scared is what the site aptly terms “Obama’s Chicken Little challenge.” After repeatedly falsely prophesying doom and destruction about the sequester and the government shutdown, the nation, let alone the GOP, just isn’t buying his debt ceiling warnings.

To acknowledge the president’s credibility gap on fiscal issues is not to ignore the dire possibilities of a default on the national debt. Were that ever to happen, it really would be an economic catastrophe and no one, not even the most ardent advocates of going to the brink with the White House, is saying anything different. However, as Senator Pat Toomey calmly explained on MSNBC’s Morning Joe program yesterday, that isn’t what will happen if there is no deal by next Wednesday:

First of all, there is zero chance that the U.S. government is going to default on its debt. It’s unfortunate that people have conflated this idea of not raising the debt ceiling immediately on October 17 with somehow defaulting on our debt. We bring in tax revenue about 12 times as much money as it takes to pay our interest on our debt. There is no way that any Treasury secretary or administration would willfully choose to have the catastrophic results that would occur if we actually defaulted on our debt when it’s not necessary. So this is pretty well understood in financial circles. You see Treasury prices have barely moved through this entire episode. But I’ve got legislation that would simply codify and formalize the obligation to make sure that under no circumstances we would default on our debt. Interestingly, the White House doesn’t want that legislation. They’ve threatened to veto it precisely because they want to be able to hold the specter of a catastrophe in front of Republicans to cow us and intimidate us into giving the president what he wants, which is a whole lot of additional borrowing authority with no reforms whatsoever, and I think that’s irresponsible.

Toomey’s reality check debunks the administration’s latest “the sky is falling” routine. But even if we accept the notion that a failure to reach a deal on the debt would be problematic, there’s little chance that even those who agree that the government shutdown is more the GOP’s fault than the president’s are going to believe the Democrats’ warnings of imminent danger. After all, we were told the same thing about the sequester cuts only to discover that the republic could survive if government departments were forced to make across-the-board cuts. Nor have the predictions of disaster about the government shutdown that began last week proved true.

That is not to say that the sequester or the shutdown are positive developments. There is long-term damage being done by cuts, especially those to national defense. But the American public saw right through the stunts staged by the administration to illustrate the pain of the shutdown, like closing open-air national monuments. When the president says the country is in danger no one, not even most of his supporters, believe him anymore. They understand every word coming out of his mouth about the standoff with his Republican foes is political in nature and designed to force them to unconditionally surrender on their fiscal demands. Some may support that position, but few believe the doom and gloom predictions that underlie his “no negotiations” stand.

It is to be hoped that as the artificial debt deadline approaches, more Republicans will get behind Paul Ryan’s ideas and that enough Democrats will be willing to talk to avert more damage being done to the economy. But if we do go over the brink, the primary responsibility will belong to the Chicken Little in the Oval Office.

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Shutdown Won’t Stop Park Ranger Meeting

According to its mission statement, the Association of National Park Rangers is:

…an organization created to communicate for, about and with National Park Service employees of all disciplines; to promote and enhance the professions, spirit and mission of National Park Service employees; to support management and the perpetuation of the National Park Service and the National Park System; and to provide a forum for professional enrichment.

Whether through their own design or the interpretations of White House lawyers, national park rangers have found themselves at the forefront of the theatrics over the government shutdown, as they have expended money and engendered public ire to shut down monuments which, when the government is fully open, are not staffed, and as they have tried to shutter private businesses which during past government shutdowns were not shut down.

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According to its mission statement, the Association of National Park Rangers is:

…an organization created to communicate for, about and with National Park Service employees of all disciplines; to promote and enhance the professions, spirit and mission of National Park Service employees; to support management and the perpetuation of the National Park Service and the National Park System; and to provide a forum for professional enrichment.

Whether through their own design or the interpretations of White House lawyers, national park rangers have found themselves at the forefront of the theatrics over the government shutdown, as they have expended money and engendered public ire to shut down monuments which, when the government is fully open, are not staffed, and as they have tried to shutter private businesses which during past government shutdowns were not shut down.

Well, no one can accuse the national park service of caring too much about optics. At their home page, they proudly announce “RANGER RENDEZVOUS IN ST. LOUIS is scheduled as usual despite the current federal government shutdown — Join us Oct. 27-31 for the annual gathering.” The event promises “the familiar with the cutting edge” and features Peggy O’Dell, NPS deputy director for operations and Gary Machlis, NPS science adviser.

Alas, it’s not inconvenience that most annoys Americans about their government and some federal workers, but rather the hypocrisy. As I blogged here on Monday, the government is throwing septuagenarians and octogenarians out of their homes on federal land, but allowing President Obama’s mother-in-law to reside in a federal building during the shutdown. It is funding Sesame Street, but delaying cancer research. And it temporarily closed down the Amber Alert main page, while letting Michelle Obama’s pet project remain up and running. The problem Americans face—and the reason why leading figures from both Democrats and Republicans are seeing their poll numbers plummet—is simply because the government seems increasingly hostile to the notion of equal application of the law.

Most park rangers are good people, and many probably dislike the policies which the National Park Service chooses to enforce. But, it is hard to claim to be an essential employee and then jet off to St. Louis for a conference. I am not sure the National Park Service fully recognizes the damage it does to its reputation and image with such hypocrisy will last beyond the shutdown.

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Is Obama Winning the Shutdown?

It’s difficult to argue with those claiming the government shutdown is an ongoing disaster for Republicans. As our John Podhoretz noted today in the New York Post, the idea that the GOP could somehow buffalo red-state Senate Democrats into abandoning the president and defunding ObamaCare was divorced from reality. It was never going to happen and now they’re stuck in a standoff with the White House that Obama thinks he’s winning. Though, as I predicted last week, those who claimed the Republicans would have to fold quickly underestimated their staying power, they’re still stuck with a plan without a path to victory or a viable exit strategy.

But even if we concede that fact, as we should, the assumption that President Obama is winning the shutdown seems to be just as farcical as Senator Ted Cruz’s assurances that the Democrats would blink in the face of conservative threats. As everyone predicted, Republicans are getting more of the blame for the government shutdown. As the latest Associated Press/GFK Poll published today illustrates, 63 percent think Republicans in Congress are not doing enough to end the shutdown while 52 percent say the same of President Obama. That’s a statistical win for the Democrats, but not exactly a vote of confidence. When it is combined with the same poll’s stunningly low 37 percent approval rating for the president, it’s time to also concede that the idea that a shutdown might be a turning point that could revive President Obama’s dismal second term is unfounded. Tea Party and Cruz critics were right to think this is a fight that the GOP should have avoided. But those who think this it is making Obama look like a hero or can help his party win the 2014 midterms are also wrong.

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It’s difficult to argue with those claiming the government shutdown is an ongoing disaster for Republicans. As our John Podhoretz noted today in the New York Post, the idea that the GOP could somehow buffalo red-state Senate Democrats into abandoning the president and defunding ObamaCare was divorced from reality. It was never going to happen and now they’re stuck in a standoff with the White House that Obama thinks he’s winning. Though, as I predicted last week, those who claimed the Republicans would have to fold quickly underestimated their staying power, they’re still stuck with a plan without a path to victory or a viable exit strategy.

But even if we concede that fact, as we should, the assumption that President Obama is winning the shutdown seems to be just as farcical as Senator Ted Cruz’s assurances that the Democrats would blink in the face of conservative threats. As everyone predicted, Republicans are getting more of the blame for the government shutdown. As the latest Associated Press/GFK Poll published today illustrates, 63 percent think Republicans in Congress are not doing enough to end the shutdown while 52 percent say the same of President Obama. That’s a statistical win for the Democrats, but not exactly a vote of confidence. When it is combined with the same poll’s stunningly low 37 percent approval rating for the president, it’s time to also concede that the idea that a shutdown might be a turning point that could revive President Obama’s dismal second term is unfounded. Tea Party and Cruz critics were right to think this is a fight that the GOP should have avoided. But those who think this it is making Obama look like a hero or can help his party win the 2014 midterms are also wrong.

Watching the president’s press conference yesterday, it was clear that this intelligence hasn’t penetrated his consciousness. The president’s hard line vowing not to negotiate over the shutdown or the debt ceiling (though offering the prospect of talks over the budget after the Republicans give up their leverage by surrendering on both the shutdown and the debt) is based on his belief that this is an argument he will always win and that his opponents will eventually see they have no choice but to give up.

For two years, Obama has been daring the Republicans to make his day with a shutdown, secure in his belief that doing so would ensure a repeat of the 1995 fight that helped rescue the Clinton presidency. But while at the urging of the Tea Party House Speaker John Boehner has finally succumbed to the temptation to don the Newt Gingrich clown suit, Obama has proved once again he is no Bill Clinton.

Pointing out Obama’s low poll figures does not exonerate the Republicans or make them look any smarter. But the media’s gang tackle of the GOP, Boehner, Cruz, and the Tea Party has missed an important element of the story that must be taken into account in any analysis of the political impact of the shutdown. As much of a blow to the Republican brand as the shutdown may be, it is far from clear that it will diminish their chances of holding onto the House next year or taking back the Senate.

Democrats may crow about the Republicans’ difficulties, but so long as the public face of their party is a president who endlessly repeats that he won’t negotiate with his foes or Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, they are not likely to gain much ground with the public. Nor is there any indication that Obama’s tantrums are the sort of thing that will give his second term the boost of energy or popularity he so desperately needs.

For all the hyperventilating about the long-term damage the shutdown will do, it’s more than probable that this episode will have little or no impact on the 2014 elections. The fate of the next Congress will largely be determined by the events of the coming year that we cannot predict and by the identity of the candidates in individual swing races (which is a reminder of how much damage Tea Party extremists can really do to the GOP, as they have in the last two election cycles). Both parties will emerge bloodied and bruised from this mess. That doesn’t vindicate Cruz, but it also won’t save Obama.

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Does Either Party Have a Strategy?

Although the modern conservative movement has always been a coalitional project–realists and idealists, neoconservatives and paleoconservatives, religious conservatives and libertarians, etc.–the current round of GOP “civil war” stories obscures a key characteristic of the right’s latest fight. It has as much to do with a disagreement over tactics and strategy as it does ideology.

This has helped insulate the right from what might have otherwise been a more one-sided reaction from the public to the government shutdown. Republicans broadly agree on ObamaCare, the ostensible reason for the shutdown. The public joins Republicans in their distaste for the health-care reform effort, which is currently sputtering out of the gate in a way that demonstrates the incompetence and unpreparedness that has plagued the Obama administration from day one.

That has been one advantage for Republicans so far: they are clearly right on policy, even if wrong on strategy. And it is that state of affairs that leaves me a bit puzzled by Paul Ryan’s proposal to end the shutdown today in the Wall Street Journal, which risks squandering both the ideological unity and the policy advantage in the public consciousness. “To break the deadlock,” Ryan writes, “both sides should agree to common-sense reforms of the country’s entitlement programs and tax code.” On entitlements, this might mean:

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Although the modern conservative movement has always been a coalitional project–realists and idealists, neoconservatives and paleoconservatives, religious conservatives and libertarians, etc.–the current round of GOP “civil war” stories obscures a key characteristic of the right’s latest fight. It has as much to do with a disagreement over tactics and strategy as it does ideology.

This has helped insulate the right from what might have otherwise been a more one-sided reaction from the public to the government shutdown. Republicans broadly agree on ObamaCare, the ostensible reason for the shutdown. The public joins Republicans in their distaste for the health-care reform effort, which is currently sputtering out of the gate in a way that demonstrates the incompetence and unpreparedness that has plagued the Obama administration from day one.

That has been one advantage for Republicans so far: they are clearly right on policy, even if wrong on strategy. And it is that state of affairs that leaves me a bit puzzled by Paul Ryan’s proposal to end the shutdown today in the Wall Street Journal, which risks squandering both the ideological unity and the policy advantage in the public consciousness. “To break the deadlock,” Ryan writes, “both sides should agree to common-sense reforms of the country’s entitlement programs and tax code.” On entitlements, this might mean:

We could ask the better off to pay higher premiums for Medicare. We could reform Medigap plans to encourage efficiency and reduce costs. And we could ask federal employees to contribute more to their own retirement.

The president has embraced these ideas in budget proposals he has submitted to Congress. And in earlier talks with congressional Republicans, he has discussed combining Medicare’s Part A and Part B, so the program will be less confusing for seniors. These ideas have the support of nonpartisan groups like the Bipartisan Policy Center and the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, and they would strengthen these critical programs. And all of them would help pay down the debt.

And on taxes:

Rep. Dave Camp (R., Mich.) and Sen. Max Baucus (D., Mont.) have been working for more than a year now on a bipartisan plan to reform the tax code. They agree on the fundamental principles: Broaden the base, lower the rates and simplify the code. The president himself has argued for just such an approach to corporate taxes. So we should discuss how Congress can take up the Camp–Baucus plan when it’s ready.

Ryan’s policy ideas might stand on their own as sensible suggestions, but presenting them this way makes two critical mistakes. First, if conservatives can at least agree on the major policy focus, they can avoid further factional splintering as the shutdown continues. They have mostly done this so far, concentrating on ObamaCare. Second, moving the goalposts plays right into Democrats’ habit of accusing Republicans of hostage-taking. If the right has a specific, timely, and relevant piece of policy it wants to fight over, the public can at least see a degree of rationality to the gambit. If conservatives just start throwing all manner of comprehensive reform at the president as varying demands to reopen the government, they will look erratic and undisciplined to those in the public who thought at least there was a clear point to all this.

Meanwhile, if Republicans are in danger of squandering more of the public’s approval than they can afford, so are the Democrats. Bill Moyers’s accusation that this government shutdown amounts to “Secession by another means” is irrationality on steroids and indicates that liberal pundits and journalists are so upset by the standoff that they have taken leave of their senses.

And Jonathan Last offers in the Weekly Standard a concise rundown of the National Park Service’s “partisan assault on the citizenry” on behalf of the Obama White House’s intent to harass war veterans and senior citizens in anger and frustration at the current gridlock in Washington. Last writes: “It’s one thing for politicians to play shutdown theater. It’s another thing entirely for a civil bureaucracy entrusted with the privilege of caring for our national heritage to wage war against the citizenry on behalf of a political party.”

Indeed it is. And the political party on whose behalf this abuse is being carried out, the Democratic Party, cannot possibly make a credible case to being either rational or a responsible steward of the federal government. And so the public declares a pox on both houses–though still a slightly more concentrated pox on the GOP. Despite conservatives’ strident opposition to the federal bureaucracy, it appears Democrats are still far more adept at portraying big government as a spiteful bully.

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The Obama Backfire

Public opinion polls show Republicans are paying a higher price for the government shutdown than is the president. But Mr. Obama–whose approval rating has dropped to 37 percent in the most recent Associate Press-GfK Survey–is making some damaging errors that are haunting him as well.

There are a couple in particular that are worth highlighting. The first is his decision to elevate to an Inviolate Principle his insistence that he will not, under any circumstances, negotiate with Republicans over the government shutdown and raising the debt ceiling. Dealing with Iran and Russia is one thing; dealing with the evil John Boehner is entirely another.

Two problems: This no-negotiating position is at odds with the record of past presidents; and his insistence that not raising the debt ceiling can only be driven by nihilistic impulses is at odds with Obama himself, who as a U.S. senator voted against raising the debt ceiling. Mr. Obama has simply decided that he wants what he wants when he wants it, and that’s that. My way or the highway.

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Public opinion polls show Republicans are paying a higher price for the government shutdown than is the president. But Mr. Obama–whose approval rating has dropped to 37 percent in the most recent Associate Press-GfK Survey–is making some damaging errors that are haunting him as well.

There are a couple in particular that are worth highlighting. The first is his decision to elevate to an Inviolate Principle his insistence that he will not, under any circumstances, negotiate with Republicans over the government shutdown and raising the debt ceiling. Dealing with Iran and Russia is one thing; dealing with the evil John Boehner is entirely another.

Two problems: This no-negotiating position is at odds with the record of past presidents; and his insistence that not raising the debt ceiling can only be driven by nihilistic impulses is at odds with Obama himself, who as a U.S. senator voted against raising the debt ceiling. Mr. Obama has simply decided that he wants what he wants when he wants it, and that’s that. My way or the highway.

The vulnerability of this mindset is that the president appears (because he is) obstinate, intransigent, and unyielding. He seems to believe that his uncompromising stance will be viewed by the public as a virtue. In fact, he’s very much on the wrong side of the vast majority of Americans who want the parties involved–and especially the president–to reach a compromise in order to end this governing fiasco. It doesn’t help matters that Mr. Obama, when he gets in a jam, often seems unable to contain his petulance. He seems to revel in demonstrating mocking disdain of Congress. His small-mindedness is radiating in every direction–and as a result, the president is shrinking before our eyes.

The other mistake by Mr. Obama is his transparent effort to inflict maximum pain on Americans in the hope that he can convince the public that the GOP is the offending party. Just one example: The effort to erect barricades to keep wheelchair-bound World War II veterans away from the World War II Memorial–an open-air public monument that has always been open 24 hours a day–was vindictive and mean. For the Obama administration to pull this kind of a stunt–which is so transparently partisan, unnecessary, ungenerous, and unappreciative of our veterans–surprises me a bit. Not because I didn’t think Mr. Obama was capable of such things. (We learned long ago that Mr. Obama will say or do just about anything to advance what he believes is in his political interests.) It’s that he was arrogant enough to think he could get away with it.

Which leads me to a final point. The president, always a distant, somewhat withdrawn, and imperious figure, now seems encased in a world all his own. One senses that Mr. Obama has surrounded himself with courtiers whose jobs are to affirm his greatness and his glory. He and they live in a bubble. The president is acting as if America is comprised solely of people who host, appear on, or watch MSNBC. Disagree with Republicans? Don’t engage with them and by all means don’t negotiate with them. Instead drop rhetorical acid on their heads. Describe them as jihadists, terrorists, anarchists, arsonists, gun-to-the-head hostage takers, and (to quote White House aide Dan Pfeiffer) “people with a bomb strapped to their chest.” And all of America will cheer. 

But it turns out that Americans don’t precisely align their views with Chris Matthews, Lawrence O’Donnell, and Rachel Maddow. And they don’t much like their president acting as if he is the deputy communications director of the DNC. 

Who knew? 

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Obama Stumbles Despite Friendly Press

This afternoon President Obama gave a brief statement on the government shutdown, said nothing new, and received a warm collective embrace from the press, who made sure not to ask him about the disastrous ObamaCare rollout. And yet, perhaps out of exhaustion or a case of the second-term blues, Obama managed to accidentally say something worth quoting at the tail end of the Q and A.

The president was asked if he had any regrets about his 2011 budget deal with House Speaker John Boehner, and how the present political dynamics would have to change going forward. In his response, Obama actually touched on a popular critique Republicans have deployed recently, which is Obama’s hypocrisy for his past opposition to raising the debt ceiling, a tactic he and his allies now consider arson and hostage-taking when used by Republicans.

After first saying that he learned from the 2011 standoff that the country cannot come that close to “default” again, the president said this:

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This afternoon President Obama gave a brief statement on the government shutdown, said nothing new, and received a warm collective embrace from the press, who made sure not to ask him about the disastrous ObamaCare rollout. And yet, perhaps out of exhaustion or a case of the second-term blues, Obama managed to accidentally say something worth quoting at the tail end of the Q and A.

The president was asked if he had any regrets about his 2011 budget deal with House Speaker John Boehner, and how the present political dynamics would have to change going forward. In his response, Obama actually touched on a popular critique Republicans have deployed recently, which is Obama’s hypocrisy for his past opposition to raising the debt ceiling, a tactic he and his allies now consider arson and hostage-taking when used by Republicans.

After first saying that he learned from the 2011 standoff that the country cannot come that close to “default” again, the president said this:

And by the way, you know, I often hear people say, well, in the past it’s been dealt with all the time. The truth of the matter is, if you look at the history, people posture about the debt ceiling frequently, but the way the debt ceiling often got passed was, you’d stick the debt ceiling onto a budget negotiation once it was completed because people figured, well, I don’t want to take a bunch of tough votes to cut programs or raise taxes and then also have to take a debt ceiling vote; let me do it all at once.

But it wasn’t a situation in which, you know what, if I don’t get what I want, then I’m going to let us default. That’s what’s changed. And that’s what we learned in 2011.

When Obama opposed raising the debt ceiling, he was just posturing the way people do “frequently.” In other words, when Obama makes a speech on policy he doesn’t actually believe what he’s saying; he just thinks enough of the voters will like his message. Obama is not, Obama says, to be taken literally. They are just words.

The other interesting nugget in that paragraph was the part where Obama said that in the past the debt ceiling was easier to sneak through without the public noticing until it was decoupled from omnibus spending bills. The thought process of America’s elected politicians, Obama explained approvingly, was: “I don’t want to take a bunch of tough votes to cut programs or raise taxes and then also have to take a debt ceiling vote.”

The Obama campaign seems to have calculated correctly that “Obama: Change we can believe in” would make a snappier bumper sticker slogan than “Obama: I don’t want to take a bunch of tough votes.” (The latter would also draw attention to his predilection as senator to vote “present.”)

This exchange took place after CBS’s Mark Knoller asked the president why he doesn’t support passing bills to fund important priorities while these non-negotiations drag on. Aren’t you tempted, Knoller asked Obama, to sign bipartisan bills that fund programs you support? “Of course I’m tempted,” Obama responded, “because you’d like to think that you could solve at least some of the problem if you couldn’t solve all of it.” Well yes, that does seem to be the point. This may seem reasonable, Obama said, but don’t be fooled. It’s a trap:

But here’s the problem. What you’ve seen are bills that come up where wherever Republicans are feeling political pressure, they put a bill forward. And if there’s no political heat, if there’s no television story on it, then nothing happens. And if we do some sort of shotgun approach like that, then you’ll have some programs that are highly visible get funded and reopened, like national monuments, but things that don’t get a lot of attention, like those SBA loans, not being funded.

You see, by funding uncontroversial and broadly popular programs while not automatically funding everything else, the Republicans are trying to trick the government into setting priorities, building bipartisan coalitions, and engaging the public in how to spend their tax money. Obama seemed to think this was self-evidently foolish, which tells you much about what the president thinks of the taxpayers.

Then the president added, almost as an afterthought: “And you know, we don’t get to select which programs we implement or not.” Since Obama chooses which parts of which laws he wants to implement and enforce at will, as if Congress were a supercommittee brainstorming ideas rather than a coequal branch passing laws, I’m guessing he would explain that he is again being take too literally when he’s obviously just posturing. Now he tells us.

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2016 and the Shutdown: Joe Biden Edition

Yesterday I wrote about Harry Reid’s attempt to bench President Obama in the ongoing shutdown showdown. Reid’s justification for this power trip was, according to Democrats, that Reid’s party is concerned Obama might negotiate in good faith and end the shutdown. That put them in direct competition: the president’s responsibility is to govern, and Reid sees his current role as protecting Democrats from having to vote on anything remotely controversial and marginalizing the Republican minority. His aims are incompatible with the president’s.

But removing Obama from the equation seems misdirected. After all, Obama has terrible relationships with the Hill and has made a career out of torpedoing major bipartisan deals rather than implementing them. When the administration needed to make a deal with Republicans in Obama’s first term, the president had to be sidelined so a deal could be struck. It was Vice President Joe Biden who stepped in to negotiate. Wouldn’t Reid, then, have more to gain by keeping Biden away from this showdown? As Politico notes today, he’s done that too:

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Yesterday I wrote about Harry Reid’s attempt to bench President Obama in the ongoing shutdown showdown. Reid’s justification for this power trip was, according to Democrats, that Reid’s party is concerned Obama might negotiate in good faith and end the shutdown. That put them in direct competition: the president’s responsibility is to govern, and Reid sees his current role as protecting Democrats from having to vote on anything remotely controversial and marginalizing the Republican minority. His aims are incompatible with the president’s.

But removing Obama from the equation seems misdirected. After all, Obama has terrible relationships with the Hill and has made a career out of torpedoing major bipartisan deals rather than implementing them. When the administration needed to make a deal with Republicans in Obama’s first term, the president had to be sidelined so a deal could be struck. It was Vice President Joe Biden who stepped in to negotiate. Wouldn’t Reid, then, have more to gain by keeping Biden away from this showdown? As Politico notes today, he’s done that too:

When President Barack Obama laid out his strategy for the current debt-limit fight in a private meeting with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid this past summer, Reid stipulated one condition: No Joe Biden.

And while Biden attended the White House dog-and-pony show meeting last week with congressional leaders, Reid has effectively barred him from the backrooms, according to sources familiar with the situation.

The vice president’s disappearance has grown ever more noticeable as the government shutdown enters its eighth day with no resolution in sight and a debt limit crisis looms. Biden was once Democrats’ deal-maker-in-chief, designing budget pacts with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in the summer of 2011 and New Year’s Eve 2013.

Coverage of the shutdown showdown has framed it as a battle of wits between President Obama and congressional Republicans (especially those in the House). The shutdown is centered on the GOP’s efforts to defund ObamaCare and undo what the president considers his signature legacy. In that respect, this is absolutely a contest between the House GOP and Obama personally.

But it doesn’t explain all the factors involved. Reid’s behavior fills in the blanks. Today’s Politico story claims Democrats think the White House–represented by Biden–gave away too much in previous deals. The first question to ask in response to this is: So what? Is the president not the leader of his party? Is it not his name on the policy that’s causing all this friction? And since when does Barack Obama (and by extension, Joe Biden) take orders from Harry Reid?

The answer has a lot to do with the timeline. The 2011 deal that Biden helped strike was before the president’s reelection. The New Year’s deal was right after Obama and Biden won the election and the political capital that comes with it. But Obama isn’t running again. It may seem strange, but Obama’s own party is treating the president as a lame duck far more than Republicans are. The sixth-year midterms traditionally can be uphill elections for the party that holds the White House. And this time it’s Reid’s legacy (somewhat) on the line.

Reid may be an unappealing spokesman for his cause, but his political instincts are still sharp. He’s right that the 2014 congressional elections have supplanted the 2016 presidential primaries as the reference point for trying to gauge the motivations of Republicans. Reid preferred not to vote on separate, piecemeal legislation to fund certain parts of the government during the shutdown, fearing it would cascade into a line-item frenzy that favored the GOP. But when Republicans in the House passed a bill to fund active-service military personnel, Reid allowed the bill to move forward in the Senate. As Byron York writes at the Washington Examiner, Republicans plan to do exactly what Reid hoped to prevent:

GOP rebels want to focus on red-state Democrats, particularly those up for re-election in 2014, and make the shutdown a question of support for veterans. (It’s a tactic that certainly wasn’t hurt by the Park Service’s ham-handed attempts to close down the World War II and Vietnam War memorials on the National Mall.) Cruz’s Growth and Freedom Fund PAC has created a new website, Fundourvets.com, that urges people to tell Senate Democrats that “legislation to fully fund the Department of Veterans Affairs…needs their support.”

The GOP rebels believe those vulnerable Democrats will eventually cave on veterans’ funding. And if they do, having voted once to keep the military going, and then again to fund the Department of Veterans Affairs, what is the rationale for resisting other funding measures?

This dynamic also explains why sidelining Biden was more significant than sidelining Obama. The president may not have another election coming up, but Reid isn’t the only Democrat with electoral considerations. Biden appears to be strongly considering running for president in 2016, and his work in helping craft bipartisan deals in the administration’s first term was seen as resume building.

Obama doesn’t have much to lose by being excluded from these negotiations, especially because Reid would never sacrifice ObamaCare to the Republicans. That’s not the case with Biden, who is enough of a loose cannon to push back on Reid if he deems it necessary. Thus the 2016 presidential election may not be motivating Republicans’ current strategy, but it could easily be a source of conflict for Democrats.

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Whose Fault Would Default Be?

President Obama is trying to establish the idea that any default on the national debt will be 100 percent the fault of the House Republicans. He has said, for instance, that Congress must “remove the threat of default and vote to raise the debt ceiling.” The treasury secretary, Jack Lew, said on Sunday that the administration would have “no option” to prevent a default.

But this is nonsense. The president is bound by his oath to uphold the Constitution and, as the distinguished–and liberal–historian Sean Wilentz points out in the New York Times today the 14th Amendment says that “the validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law” is sacrosanct and “shall not be questioned.” He
points out that the language was put in the 14th Amendment precisely to prevent Congress from welching on the enormous debt run up during the Civil War.

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President Obama is trying to establish the idea that any default on the national debt will be 100 percent the fault of the House Republicans. He has said, for instance, that Congress must “remove the threat of default and vote to raise the debt ceiling.” The treasury secretary, Jack Lew, said on Sunday that the administration would have “no option” to prevent a default.

But this is nonsense. The president is bound by his oath to uphold the Constitution and, as the distinguished–and liberal–historian Sean Wilentz points out in the New York Times today the 14th Amendment says that “the validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law” is sacrosanct and “shall not be questioned.” He
points out that the language was put in the 14th Amendment precisely to prevent Congress from welching on the enormous debt run up during the Civil War.

In an emergency, the president can certainly act to prevent a default, and thus uphold the constitutional mandate. Indeed, he would be violating his oath of office not to.

Default is nothing more than a failure to pay the interest and principal due on a debt in a timely manner. According to figures in a Power Line post, right now the government is spending about $17 billion every business day. It takes in about $14 billion in revenues. Thus it needs to borrow about $3 billion every business day to make up the difference.

A failure to raise the debt ceiling would prevent the government from borrowing that money. But it would not prevent the government from paying the interest on the debt, which amounts to only about 8 percent of revenues. Nor would it prevent the government from rolling over existing debt, which it does routinely.

What it would have to do is prioritize what bills it pays, leaving some unpaid. Families often have to do this to cover temporary cash shortfalls and there’s not a reason in the world the treasury can’t do the same. It would be embarrassing, to be sure, for the richest country on earth to have to stiff a few creditors for a while, but it would not be a default and would have few if any global financial consequences. States often do this, including Obama’s Illinois, which has debt problems that make the federal government’s look like a day at the beach.

So if this country defaults on its debt, it will be 100 percent the fault of President Obama. He has the power to prevent it. He needs only to exercise it.

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The Missing Pivot

So much for the vaunted “Pacific pivot.” When Barack Obama came into office, he vowed to reverse the Bush administration’s focus on the Middle East by “rebalancing” toward East Asia and the looming menace of China. The argument of the incoming administration was that the previous administration had lost sight of the bigger strategic realities as a result of the post-9/11 aftermath.

It turns out it’s not so easy to disengage from the Middle East–or to double down on the Far East. Look at what happened this weekend, or rather what didn’t happen.

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So much for the vaunted “Pacific pivot.” When Barack Obama came into office, he vowed to reverse the Bush administration’s focus on the Middle East by “rebalancing” toward East Asia and the looming menace of China. The argument of the incoming administration was that the previous administration had lost sight of the bigger strategic realities as a result of the post-9/11 aftermath.

It turns out it’s not so easy to disengage from the Middle East–or to double down on the Far East. Look at what happened this weekend, or rather what didn’t happen.

On the one hand, Obama ordered commando raids in Libya and Somalia. This comes after weeks, even months, of near-total focus in Washington on Syria and Iran–not on China or North Korea. On the other hand, Obama decided to not to go on a planned swing through East Asia. This included skipping an Asia Pacific Economic Summit meeting in Indonesia. Secretary of State John Kerry went instead, but he simply doesn’t carry the same diplomatic megawattage as the president. Obama’s absence left China’s leader, Xi Jinping, as the top dog.

Obama’s absence had more than symbolic import. It probably slowed the process of completing negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free-trade zone that includes most of the major countries of East Asia but excludes China. More broadly, Obama’s absence no doubt causes wavering nations such as the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and many others, which fear China but live in its shadow, to doubt how much they can rely on a putative alliance with the United States.

The president’s absence suggests that dysfunction and deficits at home are preventing American engagement in the broader world. That impression is not necessarily true; if Delta Force and SEAL Team Six could travel abroad this weekend, even as the government is partially shuttered, so too President Obama could have traveled. He just didn’t want to, because he figured it would be bad politics to leave the country during a major budget crisis. It would certainly hamper, in a cynical interpretation, his efforts to lay all the blame on the Republican side, or, to adopt a more charitable explanation, to negotiate a way to end the crisis.

That’s an understandable political calculation, and one that most presidents no doubt would have made. But it comes at a strategic cost in the very region of the world that Obama claimed he would pay more attention to.

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