Let’s Call It

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After months of insisting that the White House would not negotiate over debt-ceiling hostage taking, the White House now appears to be doing just that. Reports from numerous news organizations tell us that the White House is now looking for a deal to avoid a calamitous debt default. Yesterday President Biden told reporters, “I really think there’s a desire on their part, as well as ours, to reach an agreement, and I think we’ll be able to do it.” Of course, we haven’t seen any deal or its terms. So we can’t be certain we know what’s coming on that front. But in case there was any uncertainty on the process, the President provided clarity (emphasis added). “I’ve learned a long time ago, and you know as well as I do: It never is good to characterize a negotiation in the middle of a negotiation.” In other words, it makes sense to call this a “negotiation” because the President says it’s a negotiation. That’s good enough for me.

A cardinal rule of politics is remembering that you never get everything you want. But we should also be clear whether what we’re getting is what we said we wanted. This clearly isn’t it. Perhaps this was inevitable. But they’re negotiating over raising the debt ceiling even as they say maybe, somehow, that they’re not, even as they say they are?

Ever the optimist, I’m open to any new evidence that says this isn’t what it looks like. But I’m going with the assumption that it’s exactly what it looks like.

With that said it’s worth breaking this unfortunate development into two separate parts. One is that you can’t run a state if you create a set of rules in which the party willing to inflict the most damage on the state gets the most policy concessions. You can’t negotiate with terrorists because it begets more terrorism. That was the huge lesson we learned in 2011. It’s tempting to say that the Biden team didn’t learn that lesson. For better or worse, I think they did learn the lesson. They simply failed or found themselves unable to act on it. And here we are.

But there’s a distinct issue of the cost to be paid. Republicans both want to kill a number of hard-won programs passed in 2021 and 2022 as well as institute a new austerity regime which will hurt ordinary Americans and — by design — dim Democratic electoral prospects in 2024. It’s worth remembering that one of the real reasons we got Trump (as opposed to the self-glorifying cliche reasons) was the austerity regime agreed to in 2011 as part of that hostage crisis.

For a number of left Democrats, that danger is what this is all about: the budget cuts and austerity. Whether they come in a fight over the debt ceiling or during actual budget negotiations is sort of a secondary point. I see it a little differently, though I agree the policy concessions are hugely important on their own. Elections have consequences. The Republicans won the House. That makes it almost a certainty that they’re going to push spending priorities to the right. But entirely separate from where spending levels go we need to drive the scourge of parliamentary terrorism from Congress. On that front, the White House seems to have failed.

But spending in itself is a huge deal. So the details of any deal matter a lot. The least damaging points of agreement could be clawing back still unspent COVID relief funds and the “permitting reform” folks on Capitol Hill seem so jonesed up about. The bad, bad one are work requirements for different programs and spending caps for a certain number of years. I don’t have time to get into the precise policy details. For now my point is just that the details matter a lot, apart from having whiffed on getting into a negotiation.

There’s another really big point. There’s still an actual budget negotiation coming up. Strike a deal now over the debt ceiling, Republicans will absolutely come up with more demands during the actual budget negotiation. Going back to my earlier point, there’s nothing wrong with coming into a budget negotiation with a series of demands. That’s when negotiations are entirely appropriate. But you can easily get into a situation where House Republicans get two bites at the same apple. Having started with a cardinal mistake, the White House needs to find a way to avoid that. They also need to avoid a situation — like this one seems to be — where they’re negotiating solely on the basis of Republican demands. Where are the White House’s and Democrats’ counters?

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