Commentary Magazine


The GOP Can’t Surrender on Debt Ceiling

On Friday, my friend and colleague Peter Wehner wrote about the question of how the Republican Party can avoid a repeat of the fiscal cliff debacle in the upcoming months as a new deadline for raising the debt ceiling looms. Throughout the last few weeks, Pete has been spot-on in his analysis of what he rightly called the Republicans’ “losing hand” as President Obama and the Democrats forced them to accept a terrible fiscal cliff deal. Though some think the debt ceiling discussion will be very different from the cliff debate, Pete fears the GOP is headed down the same path and will suffer if they allow themselves to be portrayed as holding the country hostage again. To avoid that accusation as well as what he accurately describes as the futile pretense that the president will negotiate in good faith, he advises that they preemptively take the debt ceiling issue off the table sooner rather than later.

There is much to be said for this point of view, but I don’t believe Republicans can or should do as he says. If the Republican majority in the House of Representatives were to concede on the debt ceiling now they might as well just go home and let the Democrats have their way without the fig leaf of a debate. Doing so would tear the party apart and lessen rather than enhance their chances of winning in the 2014 midterms. Though Pete is right about the calamity of a rerun of the GOP fiascos of 1995 and 2011 and 2012 when they were beaten in such confrontations, there is more than one way to lose a political fight. As much as House Republicans need to worry about being marginalized as extremists who are willing to allegedly sabotage the economy to make an ideological point, they also need to worry about playing the role of the pliant opposition that is unable and unwilling to offer a stark alternative to the Democrats.

Pete believes that since Republicans will have to give in on the debt ceiling eventually and will inevitably come out the losers in any such confrontation, they’ll do better by quickly discarding the illusion that they have any real leverage over the president. Instead, he thinks they should pick their fights carefully and use the coming months to put forward a competing vision of government that will bring us back to fiscal health. There is, he writes, no alternative but to patiently wait for the inevitable moment when the public tires of “Obamaism.” It will only be then that Republicans can implement a growth agenda based on low taxes and a far-reaching reform of entitlements and other spending that will ensure the nation’s fiscal health.

But while no one on the right should assume that they are in a strong position on the debt ceiling, it is not as weak as the one they were stuck with on the fiscal cliff. With the White House and the Senate obsessed with passing tax increases on the wealthy for ideological reasons and equally determined to avoid dealing with entitlements and spending, there was no way the GOP could stick to its own principles without allowing taxes to go up on all Americans.

Now that Obama has gotten his tax hike on the rich, the argument that the GOP is holding the nation hostage for the sake of millionaires is effectively neutered. The president arrogantly assumes that his status as a re-elected president is so secure that he can dictate not only the outcome of the negotiations but also even the nature of the debate. But as we approach the moment when the current debt ceiling will expire and a government shutdown is possible, the holdup is not a controversial Republican pledge to not raise taxes under any circumstance but a Democratic refusal to entertain substantive entitlement reform. The political advantage he gained in the past could disappear once the public understands that it is his arrogant refusal to deal that is the holdup rather than Tea Party extremism.

In the president’s favor is one of the factors that helped his re-election campaign: a liberal mainstream media that continues to paint the Republican position as radical rather than reformist. It’s entirely possible that any attempt to use the debt ceiling to force the president off his high horse on spending will be portrayed as a radical putsch that the reasonable commander-in-chief is right to oppose. If an already bruised GOP House doesn’t bow to his ultimatum, they will get another thorough working over in the press.

But what he fails to take into account is what will happen if they run up the white flag on the debt ceiling without a fight.

A surrender on those terms would lead to the sundering of the GOP that could derail what is left of Speaker John Boehner’s already shaky hold on his caucus. Without even the semblance of a fight, it won’t be just a couple of dozen Tea Partiers roaming off the reservation but a full-scale revolt. More than that, the base of the Republican Party that elected a conservative House majority will be sent a message that their votes were obtained with false promises. Any notion that an aroused conservative core of the party could be enticed to the polls in 2014 to reverse the Obama agenda will be lost.

As much as Boehner needs to avoid being fitted for the sort of Newt Gingrich clown suit that will ensure this coming debate ends as badly for the GOP as did their 1995 government shutdown, he also knows that the specter of Gingrich’s predecessor as head of the House Republicans looms over his efforts.

Bob Michel, the minority leader of the House of Representatives from 1981 to 1995, was an honorable public servant but he is also a symbol of everything that was wrong with the Republicans before the Gingrich-led Republican revolution. Many politicians and liberals in the media may lament what they consider the change from the more sedate political culture of that era to the angrier and less collegial style of politics that is practiced today. Indeed, they see a willingness of Republicans to use deadlines like the debt ceiling or the fiscal cliff to advance their cause as unthinkable breaches of courtesy that show how far out the GOP has become. But conservatives understand that when dealing with liberals it is just that go-along-to-get-along philosophy that is perhaps unfairly associated with the Michel era that led to Republicans being co-opted into backing up a corrupt and sinking system that is sending the country careening along the path to bankruptcy.

They can’t let that happen. There is a vast difference between the deferential style of a Michel-led GOP minority and what Pete thinks would be good politics and good policy now. But if Republicans don’t put up a fight and hold the president’s feet to the fire now, that will be seen by most Republicans and Democrats as a distinction without a difference.

The only way for House Republicans to be able to act as any kind of a check on the president’s plans for tax increases, more spending (though it will be called “investment”) and functional status quo on the chronic problem of entitlements in the next two years will be to stick together. That won’t be possible if Boehner caves.

There are worse things for the GOP than being branded as radicals by the president and his friends in the media. If John Boehner unilaterally surrenders on the debt ceiling, they will find that out.

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