Don’t negotiate on the debt ceiling

I’ve definitely been glad to see that the idea that Obama should not negotiate with Republicans on the debt ceiling is catching on.   These pieces are from a week ago, and I should have mentioned them then, but as negotiations over the “fiscal cliff” presumably heat up it’s important to emphasize why a deal on the debt ceiling should not be part of any bargain.  First Chait:

Much as they had expected they could win the tax-cut fight by replaying their 2010 strategy of refusing to extend tax cuts for anybody unless the top rates were included, Republicans have been planning to replay their 2011 strategy of using the debt ceiling as a hostage to extract concessions. It worked in 2011 for various reasons that no longer hold true: Obama’s looming reelection made a threat to market stability especially potent, and Obama genuinely believed House Republicans would compromise with him out of a desire to reduce the long-term deficit…

Obama today told business leaders that the debt ceiling “is not a game that I will play” and that “we’ve got to break that habit before it starts.”…

The unanswered question is how Obama plans to break that habit. One possibility would be to include a reform of the debt ceiling into whatever deal he strikes with Republicans…

But Republicans are hoping the debt ceiling will give them leverage over Obama in shaping that deal. Obama is suggesting he won’t allow it. I suspect he’s right about that. It’s not 2011 anymore.

And an excellent Noam Scheiber post:

It’s hard to overstate liberals’ sense of relief that Obama is finally negotiating like someone who’s encountered a deck of cards once or twice in his life…

On its face, taking care of the debt limit now makes perfect sense. We’re due for an increase during the first half of next year, and the GOP has been pretty clear about its fondness for using the limit as a tool of extortion…

All of which points to an obvious debt-ceiling strategy for Obama: Make minimal effort to defuse it during the fiscal cliff negotiation. Once that’s resolved, simply announce to Boehner that you have no intention of bargaining over raising the limit—that whether Boehner wants to flirt with another financial crisis or calmly ease the increase through the House is entirely his choice. I guarantee he will not choose option A.

Democrats will worry that Obama doesn’t have the backbone to see this strategy through. After all, it requires accepting the chance, albeit vanishingly small, that the GOP does in fact plunge us into the abyss, a level of brinkmanship Obama has generally shrunk from in his first term…

Obama is shrewd enough to see that failing to break the GOP’s attachment to debt-limit thuggery will completely upend the balance of power between the president and Congress. Indeed, while addressing a group of business executives on Wednesday, Obama warned that, “If the Congress in any way suggests they are going to tie negotiations to the debt ceiling and take us to the brink of default once again as part of a budget negotiation… I will not play that game because we’ve got to break that habit before it starts.” I have faith that he can hold the line to kill off this destructive precedent once and for all. All the more so given how weak Boehner’s position will actually be.

All I can say is I hope Obama really does prove to play it as tough as both Chait and Scheiber are calling for.  It strikes me as smart politics and smart policy.  And probably a very clear indication of just how much he learned from his first term on why not to negotiate with hostage takers.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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