Commentary Magazine


Denier Label a Way to Avoid Debt Debate

The administration and its media allies are ramping up the pressure on Republicans determined not to vote for another hike in the debt ceiling without a meaningful agreement from the White House about entitlement reform and cutting spending. The president is refusing even to talk to the GOP about any deal in order to gain their assent for expanding the government’s ability to keep running up the debt and trying to paint them as insensitive misers who want sick children to suffer. In response, some conservatives have argued that the apocalyptic talk about the impact of a failure to reach an agreement about the debt ceiling is absurd hyperbole since what would follow would not be a default in any real sense. But now some of his allies in the media are going one step further by branding those who have said such an eventuality can be managed without the government failing to meet its obligations as “debt deniers.”

The term denier is a loaded one in contemporary political discourse. In common usage these days, deniers aren’t merely people who say something that others believe is not true. They are troglodyte reactionary haters who don’t accept the scientific community orthodoxy about global warming or, even worse, claim the Holocaust never happened or that 9/11 was an U.S. government or Israeli plot. Yet “Default Deniers” is the headline Politico placed on an article devoted to examining the views of people Like Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey or Utah Representative Jason Chaffetz. Conservatives were allowed to defend their thesis about the consequences of not raising the debt limit in the article even though the thrust of the piece was aimed at portraying Toomey, Chaffetz and those who agree with them as extremists determined to ruin the country for the sake of their ideology. But the use of this sort of language about their views is about an effort to avoid discussion about the merits of the arguments on this issue and to cast aspersions about the motives of those who oppose the president’s desire for a blank check to keep spending.

The views of those who see a halt to the routine raising of the debt ceiling are debatable. Their strongest argument is that even if it were not raised, the government would still have plenty of money to pay many off its bills but would have to prioritize which of its obligations would be satisfied first. That would mean debt payments and Social Security checks could still go out. Proposed legislation that would set those priorities would ensure that there would be no default even after the ceiling was reached.

However, critics are right to note that such a path would still upset the markets and the uncertainty might trigger a number of unforeseen circumstances that could adversely impact the economy. As even Toomey concedes, forcing the government to operate without an increased debt limit isn’t desirable. That’s why many conservatives worry that playing the debt ceiling card is a political error that can only hurt the GOP and help President Obama without doing the country much good.

Yet the attempt to brand those Republicans as extremists or to use the “denier” label on them is merely one more effort to avoid having a debate about government spending. Contrary to the president’s assertion that raising the ceiling is just a matter of Congress paying its bills, this is about an effort to end Washington’s practice of unchecked spending. Though it is politically perilous, it is the only method in sight to call the president to account for refusing to negotiate real spending cuts.

Rather than come down off his high horse and deal with the country’s chronic spending problems, the president has sought to demonize the other side in this discussion. But if you call your opponents deniers or even terrorists, as many liberals have labeled conservatives who want to stop the spending orgy do, you don’t have to talk with them or even discuss the issue. While the outcome of a default is uncertain and possibly dangerous, refusing to talk about the issue is a formula for fiscal catastrophe in the long run.

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