By Elvin Lim
Tea Party Republicans are about to be force-fed a slice of humble pie. In the first test of their political acumen since sweeping into Congress last year, they showed an ignorance of the first rule of democratic politics: never say never, because a politician’s got to be a politician.
Especially on an issue, the federal debt ceiling, with stakes as high as financial Armageddon itself! All the best intentions in the world, served up on the high horse of ideological purity, are about to bring the entire Republican party to its knees before Obama on this issue.
Ronald Reagan presided over 16 debt ceiling raises, Bush saw it raised 7 times. Did Tea Party Republicans really think that they could out-Republican Reagan and Bush? There’s the crux of any bargaining game — know thine chips. There is simply no way Wall Street and the Chambers of Commerce around the nation were going to sit around and let the Tea Party faction within the Republican fold play with this financial matter of life and death. Maybe it was the residue of last year’s electoral hubris, or maybe they believed the myth that fiscal conservatism is the one thing that unites Republicans, or maybe they forgot that the president wields a veto, but Tea Partiers and their leaders in Congress should never have done a repeat of George H. W. Bush’s “Read my lips, no new taxes.” Doing this backed them into a corner, flanked by no debt ceiling increases on the one side, and no tax increases on the other. Leaving no standing room left for compromises, the Tea Party caucus is about to realize that two negatives do not together make a “yes” from the White House. In fact, the only one who gets to say “no” with no less than constitutional gravity is the President.
Obama knew this issue was his to win all along, and he has played the Republicans like a fiddle, presenting himself as a grand negotiator and eminent pragmatist; the go-getter who slyly had it implied that checks for social security may not be sent out in August, and the media played along and covered the circus. But Obama knew that he never ever had to compromise, which is why he raised the goal of achieving a $4 trillion plan to ensure both that he looked presidentially ambitious, and that he would get exactly what he wants when the deal inevitably fails. Republican leaders trotted along to the White House negotiation table, willingly playing his game in part because they had to look like they were trying, but for the most part they were clueless about the plastic value of their bargaining chips.
It is one thing to take an extreme position, but it is another to take an extreme position on a matter that could precipitate financial Armageddon. I have to believe that anyone who is willing to take that risk has a part of herself who would like to see financial collapse on Wall Street, the decimation of corporate capitalism, and a return to Jacksonian laissez faire. The President is rather smugly playing this game because he knows that he doesn’t have to lift a hand because in the end, Wall Street will rein the Tea Party in. And so mainstream Republicans have allowed themselves to lose control of the message — which worked so very well in their favor when they were still focused on jobs — by talking themselves into corner on an issue they wrongly thought was more on their side than on the President’s. Wall Street is not conservative or Republican, Tea Partiers! It’s even more powerful than the liberals, and that’s why the Dow’s not even flinching.
Worse still, by sticking to their guns on no tax increases, the Republican party, which is bigger and normally wiser than the Tea Party orthodoxy, has missed the opportunity to call the president’s bluff, and take the deal of a lifetime involving $3 of spending cuts for every dollar of revenue increase. Republicans should take the deal if it is still on the table, or else they are going to look very impotent indeed when they’re forced, under Mitch McConnell’s plan, to raise the debt ceiling by convoluted way of saying no to it. Either way, this was a high-stakes game of politics played wrongly on the Republican side. That the debt ceiling would be raised was, and remains, a foregone conclusion, and that the Tea Party thought they could use it against Obama guaranteed that they will be used.
Elvin Lim is Associate Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com and his column on politics appears here each week.