Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Brinksmanship and the debt ceiling

One point I wouldn't mind hearing more of from the media in their coverage of debt ceiling negotiations: It is very, very hard to know who is "winning" and who is "losing" at any given point during a negotiation. In fact, those terms really aren't very meaningful until we know what the final agreement is. For example, I've heard some Democrats complain that Obama is getting rolled or that he's not "winning the argument," but it's really not clear what that means. If 60% of the American people primarily blamed Bush for the size of the debt, would that mean that Democrats had won the argument? 70% 100% And whatever that percentage is, does it have any bearing on the outcome of the negotiations?

Similarly, I'm pretty sure that John Boehner didn't want to reveal or exacerbate splits between business leaders and Tea Party activists within the GOP when he decided to go the brinksmanship route on the debt ceiling increase. But there's a tendency to treat that as a loss for Republicans, even though we have no idea whether it will impact the final agreement.

"Go ahead, blow it back to God."
Most of what we have right now are nothing more than tea leaves, offering small bits of insight as to just how serious each side is and whether or not it has the votes to get what it wants. My personal impression of Boehner is that he's kind of like Indiana Jones pointing a bazooka at the Ark of the Covenant; he's serious, and he really doesn't want the other people to control the Ark, but he's not actually willing to blow it up. But Eric Cantor just might be, and even if he's not, he just might have enough people in the GOP caucus who don't see a downside to blowing it up and can't tell when their leaders are bluffing. That's a precarious situation for negotiations. But again, these are just impressions.

The key point here is that no one knows who is winning or losing this thing. Horse race descriptions, while useful in campaigns, just really don't apply here.


Justice Callicles said...

"I've heard some Democrats complain that Obama is getting rolled or that he's not 'winning the argument,' but it's really not clear what that means."

One obvious measure would be policy goals achieved. Republicans supposedly want large spending cuts, and are apparently getting it. Democrats want spending on the poor and elderly protected, and may NOT be getting that.

Another measure, taking things back one level from policy, might be control of the conversation -- who is setting the agenda. Who decided that we would be talking about debts and deficit in the first place, especially since the economy is in poor shape and people are still in need. This debate is itself part of the Republican agenda.

Continuing that line, who defines what is reasonable? It appears the Republicans do. I recently read that the Democratic proposals are slightly to the right of what the average Republican voter prefers. Yet, according to Republican representatives, this is not something that should get their vote. Will there be even more Democratic concessions to get those votes?

The Republican party's reputation is already thoroughly compromised in the minds of all but a few fanatics, so laying some more blame on them is an empty an ephemeral "win". I want concrete advances in policy, not lost ground.

marc said...

I wonder to what degree we're hostages of the beltway definitions of winning. A few weeks ago it did seem like this was a purely political game, since it was hard to really believe that either side was willing to let the US default. The bazooka and the ark, indeed. 72 hours from the end of the world, though, winning means not political points, but victory in the very real fight for reason over insanity. The metaphor has inverted: Indy is now legitimately threatening to pen the ark. Actually, no, I don't like this, because that makes the rest of us German soldiers. Boehner is definitely Admiral Akbar though.

marc's typo said...

open the ark, that is.