Newbies and True Believers Bedevil Debt-Ceiling Negotiations

Some Republicans are having a hard time distinguishing the serious part of politics from the posturing, just like in 1995


If I had to guess how the debt-ceiling impasse will ultimately be resolved, I suspect some version of Mitch McConnell's rattle-trap jalopy of a proposal will provide all parties with a face-saving way out. But it's by no means a sure thing. As I write, there are plenty of members of the House Republican caucus who are threatening to balk, and the gob-smacking thing about that is, they may actually mean it.

Most political parties have their internal divisions and tensions, but the Republican Party currently has much more than its share, with libertarian purists, Christian theocrats, Wall Street-style fiscal conservatives, disgruntled-but-confused-unto-incoherence Tea Partiers, and no doubt other groups all contending for control of the party's identity. And for this ideological Tower of Babel the party has itself largely to blame; it thought it could use all these disparate groups to its own electoral advantage while, when the time came, buying them off with sops. It hasn't worked out that way. It often doesn't.

The division causing the most immediate practical problems right now is one that typically bedevils a party after it has enjoyed a big success at the polls: Some of its newly-elected officials are impassioned amateurs rather than seasoned professionals, and they fundamentally misunderstand which parts of politics are posturing and which are serious. They actually buy their own bullshit. The consequences can be calamitous.

The stalemated debt-limit negotiations now underway are not without historical analogue.  We've been in a similar situation before, and not, in fact, so very long ago. And it's a precedent that strikes fear in the hearts of knowledgeable Republican veterans.

During the budget negotiations of 1995, the new Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, misinterpreted his recent victory as an ideological mandate, and with his new troops in full-throated support, played a reckless game of Texas Hold 'Em with the president of the United States. His all-in bet was a willingness to bring the federal government to a standstill if his demands were not met.

And for a while, it appeared to be working. Bill Clinton came pretty close to folding his hand and cashing in his chips. As the negotiations proceeded, he went along with a shorter and shorter time-table for achieving a balanced budget and to deeper and deeper spending cuts.  Many of his allies, including many of his allies seated around him at the negotiating table in the Roosevelt Room, were appalled at his readiness to make concessions. But Clinton had been spooked by the recent off-year elections, which seemed to have delivered a stunning repudiation of his presidency, and was worried about his own re-election campaign, only months away, and he felt sufficiently unsure of his ground, and of the mood of the country, that he appeared to be inclined to give away the store.

But the Republicans under Gingrich smelled blood in the water and wouldn't take yes for an answer. As they savored the president's perceived weakness, they kept pushing for greater and greater concessions, and they finally pushed too far, and came up against some hitherto unglimpsed presidential spine. Clinton would not budge on Medicaid. That was the program on which he was finally prepared to stake his presidency. Gingrich and his minions, cockily convinced that the country was behind them, thereupon closed the government down.

The result was a political debacle. Americans may have been bitching about government in the abstract -- that's always been a popular pastime -- and cheering when politicians called for its shrinkage, but once it suddenly wasn't there, they began to realize it wasn't quite so expendable as all that. And blame for the shut-down fell squarely on the Republicans' shoulders. In this type of crisis, it always does, partly because it usually is the Republicans' fault, and also because, since that party has defined itself as the opponent of government, it's only logical to blame them when they make good on their promises.

Now, despite some similarities, there are many significant differences between 1995 and the present, and one of them is this: Congressional intransigence back then was a tactic initiated at the top, by Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey, and therefore subject to adjustment by the leadership as facts on the ground changed. Their political instincts had unquestionably served them ill in this case, and Gingrich in particular was habitually erratic, even unstable, with a marked propensity for screwing up; but still, both men were politicians, they had instincts. And among those instincts, as with all politicians, the survival instinct was the strongest. At some point, as the country recoiled and their poll numbers tumbled, it became apparent to them that they had miscalculated, and they immediately tried to find a face-saving way out of the maze into which they had stumbled.

Which is where, nowadays, Mitch McConnell comes in. He saw weeks ago that his party in the House was making the same kind of mistake Newt Gingrich had made a decade and a half earlier, inviting a donnybrook without beginning to grasp the political and economic ramifications. Whether he actually cares about, or even grasps, the magnitude of the fiscal catastrophe that might result from a failure to raise the debt ceiling is almost irrelevant. McConnell is an entirely political creature, and with history to guide him, he perceived, clearly and early, the political risks such a course entailed.

My guess is that over in the House, John Boehner actually does have some rudimentary understanding of the economic hazards (and he's no doubt also been on the receiving end of panicky phone calls from his Wall St. allies and donors, for whom reality always trumps ideology). But a significant portion of his conference is clueless about what's really at stake, and he has been riding that tiger since before the last election. He no doubt believed he could use his radical wing but control it when the time came for the grown-ups to cut a deal. Wrong!  Dismounting from the tiger now would be a lethally dangerous move for him, especially when his ostensible deputy is pandering so shamelessly and recklessly to the most irresponsible members of the caucus, and breathing down the Speaker's neck in transparent hopes of supplanting him, and managing that transition sooner rather than later.

Well, an elaborate quadrille is now underway to let the Republican radicals cast some mean-spirited but meaningless protest votes, and then to cede control to the more responsible leadership, who will go along with McConnell's face-saving compromise. Recent polling showing -- to no experienced observer's surprise -- that Republicans are getting the blame for the current mess, and that a growing number of Americans are starting to appreciate the gravity of the situation, will add some urgency to the Republican about-face.

But the outcome still remains in doubt. There are all those true-believers for John Boehner to contend with. When you don't realize you're dancing a carefully choreographed quadrille, there's always the possibility you might refuse to stay in step.

Image credit: Reuters