Boehner Is Beating Democrats in the Debt Ceiling Game

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Like any well-crafted political message, House Speaker John Boehner's speech to the New York Economic Club on Republicans' debt ceiling strategy could be reduced a dozen words: No new debt without a deal, no new spending, no new taxes, no default.

Simplicity is a virtue in messaging, but in the real world, Boehner's debt ceiling game gets complicated. Raising the debt limit requires a deal. A deal requires Democratic votes. Democratic votes require tax increases. No tax increases means no Democrats, which means no deal, which means no debt limit increase and the possibility of a bond market freakout.

It's hard to pin the blame on Boehner. He has little choice but to walk the tightrope between the Wall Street, which is begging Congress to stop playing politics with the debt ceiling, and the conservative Republican caucus, which has demanded major cuts in exchange for any increase in our debt limit. His position is lamentable, but understandable.

But why exactly are moderate Democratic senators like Kent Conrad, Joe Manchin and Mark Pryor following Boehner onto that tightrope? The Democrats want to earn the public's trust on fiscal issues by talking up budget reform. As a separate matter, they want to raise the debt ceiling. But rather than treat these separate issues separately, some Democrats are now saying that they too see budget reform as a prerequisite for a long-term debt ceiling increase.

Why even meet Boehner at the negotiating table? Why not simply say: If you want to talk budget reform, let's talk budget reform. But if you're trying to use the nation's credit as a bargaining chip, that's a game you'll have to play all on your own.

The message coming out of the offices of senators Conrad, Manchin, and Pryor seem to be: "We want to tie budget reform to the debt limit, too, but with more tax increases." This is convoluted and unnecessary. It's time to decouple budget reform and the debt limit. Here's a new messaging strategy: "Both parties want to fix the budget. Only one party is willing to hold our country's credit rating hostage to do it."

 


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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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