Debt Ceiling 2013: Here We Go Again


If it’s fall, it’s time for our politicians to fight over shutting down the government. Then, just a month later, they’ll fight over raising the debt ceiling. It’s the latest crisis in Washington, the town that never fails to disappoint.

Nobody is surprised that Republicans are threatening to shut down the government unless Obamacare is either defunded or delayed. Nobody will be surprised when the GOP makes the same demands when the debt ceiling, the legal limit for American borrowing, is reached in October. As George W. Bush would say, it’s the soft bigotry of low expectations. Nobody expects congressional Republicans to recognize that their position is unpopular and politically unfeasible because congressional Republicans have shown themselves immune to these kind of conventional political arguments.

Only a few years ago, in 2011, a fight over whether or not to raise the debt ceiling horrified Washington insiders, scared investors enough to send the stock market falling 500 points, and cost the Treasury Department  $1.3 billion in taxpayer money because of its effect on bond markets. But after two years of gridlock and no end in sight, mindless brinkmanship has become just another part of the new normal in dysfunctional D.C.

According to polls by The Winston Group, a Republican polling firm, 71% of Americans oppose a government shutdown and even 53% of Republicans oppose the strategy. This of little concern to House Republicans, who still hope to use the shutdown threat to force concessions from President Obama. Blissful ignorance of public opinion will likewise be the rule during the debt ceiling — Republicans were on the wrong side of the polls during previous debt ceiling fights, and nothing suggests this time will be different.

Normally, you can count on politicians to obey public opinion polls on major issues. After all, politicians are survivalists and they want to stay in the good graces of the people who send them to Washington. The problem is that the people who Republicans are listening to are a minority of Americans, who have been empowered to shape public policy through their outsized involvement in primaries and the lopsided congressional districts Republicans represent.

One of the worst trends in modern politics is how safe congressional districts have become. Only 16 House Republicans represent districts that President Obama won in the presidential election, and only nine Democrats represent districts that Romney won. Though it’s popular to blame gerrymandering for these safe districts, the real culprit is the American public itself. Fewer Americans are swing voters, and more Americans are choosing to live among like-minded people rather than in politically diverse communities.

These two trends mean that representatives will almost never lose to a challenger of the opposite party, and instead need to worry about a primary challenger. This is particularly true in the Republican Party, where conservative hardliners have beaten several incumbent Republicans.

The Tea Party casualties weren’t no-name backbenchers, but prominent Republicans like Bob Inglis, a confidant of Newt Gingrich during the 1990s, and Cliff Sterns, a 13-term incumbent. In the Senate, long serving solons like Dick Lugar and Robert Bennett were likewise ousted for various apostasies to Tea Party dogma. When the shutdown and debt-ceiling votes take place, the fate of their defeated colleagues will be the first thing many Republicans think about.

There’s no way the Republican Party wins in the coming fiscal fights. Public opinion rests squarely with the president, and his name recognition and ability to command media attention give him a structural advantage in any crisis. Republican dreams about defunding Obamacare are sugarplum delusions, and delay is only slightly more likely. Obama simply doesn’t need to compromise. Obamacare might not be popular, but neither is a government shutdown or a debt default. It’s a lose-lose situation for the GOP, but it looks like they’re going to do it anyways.

Welcome to the new normal.