The ongoing hostage crisis that gripped a nation ended peacefully Wednesday night, with Republicans releasing the American and world economies. While the GOP had made wild and unreasonable demands during the 16-day-standoff, including the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, negotiators were able to bring the crisis to an end without giving in on any front.
Is that hyperbole? Okay, maybe it is, but there’s no question that the end to the budget standoff was a complete victory for the Obama Administration, House and Senate Democrats, and the vast majority of Americans who believe that government should not function like a game of chicken. It was also an utter repudiation of the politics of hostage-taking that the Republican Party has practiced over the past three years. In short, it was a victory for anyone who wants a functional government.
It’s important to start by remembering that two weeks ago, Republicans in Congress, led by Tea Party darling Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, were quite certain that they could use the threat of a government shutdown to win concessions from President Obama. They felt that threatening the pain of a government shutdown — one that ultimately ended up costing our economy $24 billion — would be enough to force Obama to delay the implementation of his signature domestic policy achievement. Surely, they said, Obama would not risk the economy to keep Obamacare afloat. If he did stand firm in the face of a shutdown, he certainly would cave once the debt ceiling came to the fore.
Republicans had tried this before, with some success. Not long after taking control of the House, Republicans used the threat of default to wring concessions on spending that ultimately became the sequester. To Obama’s credit, he recognized that this was not a tenable way of running the government. As negotiations were winding down then, he called senior aides in to make clear that there would be no future hostage negotiations.
Obama could not have been clearer about this; ever since 2011, he has stated flatly that he will not negotiate on the debt limit. Republicans assumed he was bluffing, but Obama was deadly serious. If a party controlling one house of Congress could hold the nation hostage over the debt limit, then it would — over and over again. In the long run, this risked an even worse outcome than default: a government careening from manufactured crisis to manufactured crisis, with parties making more and more outlandish demands as a condition of keeping the government functioning and the economy from imploding.
This is why Obama refused to give Republicans even a fig leaf of cover in the days after the shutdown began. As soon as Republicans realized the disaster they’d created, they began searching for an out that allowed them to declare some small shred of victory. Obama refused to give that to them; any victory, no matter how small, would have been a concession that government-by-threat was viable. In the end, the only thing Republicans could claim is a small tweak to the Affordable Care Act bolstering income verification — a small tweak that, far from shutting down the Affordable Care Act, tacitly acknowledges that it is the law of the land.
Pessimists will note that the continuing resolution and debt ceiling hike are not permanent; the GOP could threaten default again next February, and the government could shut down again as soon as December. That’s true. The last two weeks, however, has severely damaged the Republican brand. Recent polling has shown Democrats opening up such a large lead in the so-called “generic ballot” that they would win back the House despite GOP gerrymandering.
If Republicans want to repeat this, they can. But the voices of folks like Cruz will hold less sway; there’s no question that Obama is not bluffing when he says he won’t negotiate a debt limit hike. There’s every sign that Republican leaders like House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, went along with this plan because they were afraid the right wing would revolt. The damage done to the GOP by the last two weeks, however, makes a right-wing revolt look minor. It’s far more likely that the GOP will use the upcoming few weeks to try to cool their base’s passions down, so that they can quietly keep the government functioning the next time it comes to a vote.
By refusing to negotiate with Republicans, Obama ended up breaking the GOP’s hostage-taking wing. That’s not just good for the President; it’s good for the country as a whole. Negotiating with a gun to your head never leads to good policy. For all the angst of the past two weeks, this outcome was well worth it.
Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore