Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Catch of the Day

What Greg Sargent said:
This latest move from a shutdown-based strategy against Obamacare to a debt limit-based one (presuming it will even happen) is part of a larger pattern, in which GOP leaders try to talk conservatives out of the favored insane and dangerous strategy of the moment by promising another confrontation around some other leverage point later. Indeed, GOP leaders have done exactly this in the past, in order to avoid a confrontation over — yup — the debt ceiling...

Now we are being asked to believe that Republicans will use the debt limit — on which they caved last time — to force concessions on Obamacare. But the problem is that the timing of all of this makes this strategy even more suspect this time.
Here's the thing: no matter what happens -- no matter what the Speaker does, or who the Speaker is -- the Speaker is going to be the squish in the little morality play being staged by conservatives. Why? Because on true must-pass legislation under the current conditions of divided government, at the end of the day the Speaker is going to support, tacitly or explicitly, a deal with the Democratic Senate and the Kenyan Islamist-Atheist Socialist in the White House. Because eventually (before or after a shutdown, before or after a debt limit breach) the must-pass thing will pass, and the only way that happens is that it passes both Houses and is signed by the president. Which means that the Speaker goes along with something that the Democrats can live with.

And the way that Capital-C Conservatives prove that they're real Conservatives and not RINOs is by opposing whatever that deal is, and by making the Speaker the scapegoat. If only they had held their breath even longer, and turned an even more beautiful shade of blue, surely then the Democrats (who are both incredibly devious partisan fighters and wimps about to cave any second now) would have surrendered. The fault is with their traitorous leaders. Always.

What follows from this is a few things...

1. Boehner's kick the ball down the road might be working not because he's duping hard-line conservatives in his conference but because they need him to do it for their story.

2. Boehner's position is relatively safe, as long as he wants it in these conditions (and yeah, most Members who get on the leadership ladder at all really, really, really want to be Speaker for Life, whatever the conditions it's under) -- in large part because the opposition to him is structural, not personal, and whoever is next in line would have exactly the same problems. And everyone knows it. So the rest of the leadership is content to wait for a better time to grab the big chair -- and even the nuttiest of the Crazy Caucus don't really want to be toppling a Speaker once a month.

3. As I've been saying for a while: the specific demands of those who aren't going to vote for the eventual deal really don't matter very much.

None of this means there won't be a shutdown or a debt limit disaster. Boehner will still need the votes, and that's going to be hard; even beyond that, brinkmanship always carries with it the danger of miscalculation.

But, yeah, the Speaker has developed a solid record of ducking disaster in these showdowns, and there's a good chance he's on course to do it again.

And: nice catch!


  1. Question: do what extent do the Capital C Conservatives, both pols and activists, understand that institutional factors, rather than Boehner personally, are stymieing their desired ends?

    Is opposition to Boehner among his caucus pretty much exclusively a show for the base? And is opposition to Boehner among the base pretty much exclusively because they think if only Steve Stockman or somebody were speaker, the Dems would cave and they'd get everything they want?

  2. Let's assume Boehner is continuing to be a very able, canny politician right now and that he does understandably realize that miscalculation is possible, even while managing volatile situations in the best possible way. Then why *escalate* the situation to a focus on the debt ceiling (irreversible damage, truly disastrous), rather than on the CR and shutdown (much margin for error, negotiations are rational and understandable)? How can he be so sure what pressures his caucus will face after September 30, how they will react internally and how the media and base will choose to play their hand in the wake of another high-profile "cave"?

    1. I think that anything Boehner can do to prevent an economic recovery plays into the story line that the Democrats are incompetent at handling the economy. That helps hold Republicans in power at the state level.

    2. I think the main difference is that the debt ceiling vote will happen after the CR is passed.

      I bet at the end of the debt ceiling debate, just before the House passes the clean increase, Boehner will tell House Republicans that the real cuts will occur in March when the CR expires...

    3. So Boehner, following that plan, can just keep stringing the fools in his caucus along. But at that point one starts to think that they're such fools, who knows what they'll do to provoke a disaster at any given crisis point (what would make Boehner so certain...). And if that's the case, better to give in to a government shutdown situation (low stakes), not a debt default situation (high stakes). Continuing the two-step only makes sense if Boehner knows precisely how crazy his caucus is, precisely how much he can manage them.

    4. And if he know that each additional two-step maintains the same level of crazy or reduces it, not that it *raises* the level of crazy. If the latter, he's setting up a worse outcome for himself, not a better one.

    5. The key does seem to be differing interpretations of "the crazy": Who's the best horse-whisperer and diagnostician of the dynamics of the crazy? Greg Sargent, Brian Beutler, and JB (as I take it) are confident that Boehner management of the caucus's crazy and the base and media's crazy is a stable dynamic. Chait is the most high profile advocate of the view that Boehner is underestimating how capricious or inflationary it could be. In which case, Boehner isn't so much managing the crazy, as he is gradually partaking of it.

    6. Let's take another tack. The President has declared he won't negotiate on the debt limit. I've got a dollar that says he'd be happy to negotiate on the CR. So, if Boehner agrees to negotiate on the CR, they can get a deal.

      But Boehner's never been happy after he deals with Obama. I mean, Obama isn't WJC, but he still bests Boehner, mostly because the Republicans see giving up anything in negotiations as surrender. Especially if they have a nice hostage.

      So of course Boehner's talking them out of negotiating on the CR.

  3. Seems to me y'all may be misreading the Speaker. First, Sun-Tzu: what is the Speaker's goal? Ideally, he'd like to make significant cuts to spending, pleasing his Tea Party lobby, while also not antagonizing his important elderly and defense hawk constituencies. He knows this combination is not possible. A next-best alternative would be to get the cuts that the Tea Party wants, while having the devastated elderly and defense hawks blame their pain on the Democrats.

    Not an easy task, as the Democrats obviously wouldn't freely sign up for such a status. Sargent, in the blockquote above, notes that

    "GOP leaders try to talk conservatives out of the favored insane and dangerous strategy of the moment by promising another confrontation around some other leverage point later"

    As such, this increasingly dangerous game of brinksmanship whackamole would be something Boehner likes; Sargent certainly didn't invent the Boehner/GOP crazy meme, its all over the liberal zeitgeist. From here, its comforting to assert (especially among friends) that a default or shutdown that went past one pay period would be the fault of the Republicans, and they would pay accordingly.

    Problem is, Democrats in vulnerable districts don't believe that for a second. The hoi polloi doesn't know the sign of the deficit delta; they surely won't partition blame for a default or shutdown. And if the hoi polloi thinks about it, it would be in the context of the Dems being the "good government" people, with shutdown or default being the ultimate in bad government, from which vulnerable Dems would pay, injustice be damned.

    And because they'll pay, those vulnerable Democrats will ultimately fold and own what Boehner needs them to own. They'll own those cuts, cause Boehner - remember? - is crazy.

    Crazy, alright. Like a fox.

    1. Your narrative counts on two key points that are mistaken, IMO. 1)The hoi polloi in swing districts will *somehow* blame Dems. That's a stretch. 2) Those Dems are afraid of that outcome, so they'll cave--another stretch.

      Think again, but by all means keep posting.

    2. Oh, my, CSH, how you do love your 11-dimensional chess! But, as usual, I strongly suspect you are making people out as being both more intelligent and more in control than they in fact are. I tend to agree with MP: the idea that the GOP will win the messaging war with the "hoi polloi" in vulnerable districts is an assertion that may turn out to be true, but which certainly flies straight in the face of what the majority of experienced political observers seem to believe, as well as in the face of the historical evidence from previous shutdowns. The second assertion, that Democrats somehow "know" this is the case (how would they know that? and how do YOU know that they know that so definitively that they don't believe it for a second) and will calculate that "owning" the cuts is a better route to survival than "owning" a shutdown, is dubious in the extreme. It's rather like asserting that someone will shoot themselves in the temple rather than the mouth, given that the temporal bone provides a small amount of net resistance to a 9MM bullet compared to the hard palate.

    3. Keep in mind, guys, that the issue is not so much the calculation of the Democrats as it is Boehner. I think we would all agree that Boehner owning the cuts that the Tea Party wants is an absolute non-starter; you both may be correct that the likelihood of shuffling them off on the Dems is slim. But slim is better than none, isn't it?

      Anastasios, you compared owning the cuts and owning the shutdown to various methods of killing oneself. From that we infer that the Dems (and, for that matter, the Repubs) would prefer to touch neither. But Boehner is signalling that he is willing to drive off the shutdown cliff, which guarantees (from the Dems' perspective) one of two bad outcomes.

      So contra MP, vulnerable Dems might cave because they think that swing voters won't blame them. The crazier they think Boehner is, the more willing they'd be to take that chance (since shutdown is an absolute bad for them).

      From Boehner's side, which would he rather do, play a game of chicken or drive his car straight off a cliff? And if he's going to play a game of chicken, isn't it helpful to have Greg Sargent in the ear of the other driver, reminding the other driver that he's totally nucking futs?

      Finally, is it really 11-dimensional chess, Anastasios? Or does it only seem that way cause we don't talk this way regularly? I mean, what do Boehner and his aides discuss if not this type of war-gaming? The prospects of the Washington NFL franchise?

    4. @csh, That's too complex,and maybe even worse than your theory as I (mis)understood it. I doubt all that complexity is helping you see the political landscape clearly.

      If Boehner is going to let a shutdown happen, it's got more to do with letting the TP test their theory and watch it fail than with Dems in swing districts.

  4. Yeah, I think it is pretty much 11-dimensional, CSH, in that you are proposing all sorts of convolutions that simply aren't in evidence. What is in evidence is:

    1) There is an element within the GOP that wants a shutdown.

    2) There is an element within the GOP that doesn't want a shutdown and thinks it would be a disaster. Although the smart money may be mistaken, as I like to point out it ain't always that smart, at the moment it is solidly on the side of Boehner not being crazy.

    3) That being the case, I don't think most people in the Democratic government elites think Boehner is crazy. They might think him weak, or foolish, or a drunk, or pitiable, or even an honest broker with regretably backward ideals and a lot of difficult people in his caucus he can't control, but not crazy. Oh, plenty of pundits say Boehner is crazy, but as you constantly remind us on the conservative side pundits ain't the same as policy makers, and that's the case with the Democrats, too. Also, I'd point out that even Sargent seems to pity Boehner more than to think he is insane himself.

    4) It is simply hard to see any historical evidence to justify the idea that Democrats in swing districts would be more at risk from a shutdown than from voting for massively unpopular cuts. Its hard to see how they could hope to survive with the message "Yeah, I voted to cut your Medicare but the GOP MADE me do it!" especially when the GOP challenger will be saying, "All they had to do was vote against Obamacare, after all, to save your Medicare." Much easier to point the finger at the GOP and say "Look what these crazies did to you! I voted to keep the government open." Dangers in that, too, of course, and it might not work, but has a far greater likelihood of success than the alternative.

    5) Most Democrats in swing districts are in the House, not the Senate. Sure, there are red-state senators up for election this year, but not enough of them to control the caucus in the face of Harry Reid's opposition, or to pass legislation in the Senate without his agreement. Given that, the Senate just ain't going to go for those kind of cuts and swing-state House Democrats know it.

    So, put it together and we have:

    1) Crazy people in the GOP
    2) Democratic elites, at least according to most reporting, don't believe Boehner's posturing about being one of them
    3) The Senate ain't going to go for dramatic cuts the House votes for to appease the Tea Party
    4) Boehner fall down, go squish

    Now, it may be that Boehner really IS crazy, or that he can't control his caucus. But if that is the case, then we will probably just have a shutdown and see who wins. But the Senate caving to Boehner because of the worries of red-state senators or swing-district Democrats? And Obama, who after all doesn't have to run again and wants to pass liberal programs intact to his successor, signing it? Does not seem likely.


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