“I am firm. You are obstinate. He is a pig-headed fool.” – Katherine Whitehorn
The making of a political deal is messy and crude. The debt ceiling deal was especially so. Tea party supporters took a lot of the abuse during the standoff. They were called just about everything by Democrats in Congress, a few of their fellow Republicans and liberals across the country. Late-night comedians and the mainstream media had a field day excoriating the tea partiers.
They called them crazy, Hobbits, zombies, vultures, bloodsuckers, dumb, robots, murderers, stupid, idiotic, Nazis, evil, delusional, racists, addicts, narrow-minded, imbeciles, extremists, devils, dogs, monsters, terrorists, know-nothings and several names that parents do not want their children to hear.
The descriptive language of left-leaning commentators was heard nightly on television as they tried to frame the debate in their terms. The tea parties did not care about framing. They cared about getting their way. Did they? Or were they pawns in a larger game?
You may decide for yourself who almost drove the United States over a cliff. I will try to separate the verbal war from the legislative battle leading to the final debt ceiling bill. What was the fight really about? Why did it take so long to resolve? Who won and who lost?
Note: In researching this report, I have relied on reporters and other writers and staff at the White House and on both side of the aisle in the House and Senate, plus a few elected members of Congress. My reporting is only as accurate as their version of events – and they may be spinning. One thing I did note is that the people who were most critical of President Obama were White House staffers. Perhaps the tension of the final hours, when everything seemed to be slipping away, and the frustration of indecision loosened tongues once the crisis passed.
Different definitions of control
The fight was less about the debt ceiling than about control. But each faction had a different definition of control and, therefore, a different version of victory.
For President Obama, the fight was about having Congress bring him a solution that he would accept. We have seen this before. This is his modus operandi. He stays as far above the fray as possible, not committing. In the United States Senate – and before that in the Illinois Senate – Obama cast an amazing number of non-votes: He declined to vote for or against and simply voted “present.”
His instinct is to announce what he expects in the final deal but to avoid and defer decisions along the way. Obama wants to control the process while others work out the details. He awaits the finished product before giving his judgment. Sometimes, he critiques the work in progress and he is known in the White House as a kibitzer. In this situation, he made clear his goal: The debt ceiling legislation must include new revenues as well as spending cuts.
Liberals and the Democratic leadership in Congress wanted to force the Republicans to break with the no-new-taxes vow of the tea partiers. They wanted to split the GOP and weaken it for the 2012 elections. The president encouraged them.
According to conservatives, control meant something akin to ending the New Deal. They believe that left-wing intellectuals have been running the country since the 1930s, interspersed with periods of competent but also (especially recently) incompetent Republican leadership. Some conservatives saw the tea partiers as a vehicle to break the media-academic-think tank-wonk driven entitlement crowd’s hold on the levers of government.
The hateful invective that resulted as the many sides and styles tried to engage was not new to American politics. The less time available to approve a bill increases the level of the rhetoric. House Speaker Boehner wanted to take up the debt ceiling extension early this year but Obama delayed, criticizing Republicans for not wanting to focus on “more immediate problems” first. The president apparently believed that he was more likely to get his way if he waited and forced the Republicans to make a quick deal to avoid default. Obama may have miscounted the votes.
Taxes and the tea parties
On television and in press reports, the struggle seemed to be over raising taxes. The tea parties refused to budge. Too often, they said, when taxes are included in a bill that aims to reduce spending, those taxes get diverted to new spending, not deficit reduction. Often, pet projects of powerful congressmen siphon off the new taxes.
The Democrats followed President Obama down a path that seemed reasonable. They wanted what they called a balanced approach: Cut spending and raise taxes. It turned into a political blind alley because what seems reasonable to most people is not at all reasonable if you do not have the votes. Without the votes, it is bad politics because all it does is delay cobbling together a deal that can attract enough votes.
The tea parties and many Republicans kept saying that the problem is not that Americans are under-taxed. The problem is too much spending. Obama made speeches calling the Republicans obstinate and selfish. He said that Social Security and other programs were in danger because the tea parties were driving the country over the cliff. Obama may not have believed those parts of the research reports his campaign staff conducted that showed that Americans have come to see many entitlement programs as plums doled out to favored special interests. Those are the entitlements to cut, these voters say.
Obama kept going on television, with diminishing results. He repeated that the tea parties and/or the Republicans would drive the country over the cliff. Then everything changed when the unexpected happened: The House passed a debt ceiling extension that contained no new taxes, with most tea party Republicans joining the Democrats in voting against their own party’s bill. The situation spun out of Obama’s control.
Forcing Obama to give up control
At that point, senior White House officials realized that a key part of their strategy – to force House Republicans to ask the White House for help in rounding up Democrats to replace defecting Republicans in exchange for new taxes – would not work. Speaker John Boehner had delivered a bill without Democratic support. Obama was advised not to demand that Boehner take the bill back and add taxes to it because adding taxes might cost more GOP votes than would be gained from the Democratic side of the aisle. The president could not take the chance that another impasse might run out the clock, staff advised. So the president blasted the just-passed bill and refused to accept it as a basis for continued negotiations. But he got the White House more engaged in negotiations as the Senate began work on a new bill to replace the House bill.
Suddenly, the Republicans stopped dealing with the Democratic leaders in Congress. Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader, began to negotiate directly with the Obama administration – specifically with Vice President Joe Biden, whom he trusted. The GOP said that direct negotiations eliminated the time-consuming and unnecessary step of engaging the Congressional Democratic leadership, which was a waste of time because all the Democratic leaders did was run to the White House for orders and talking points.
Angry, Obama tried to force McConnell to include the House and Senate Democrats and House Speaker John Boehner. The White House stressed that Boehner needed to be included because he would have difficulty delivering the votes of House tea partiers for anything that he did not help to negotiate. This would have brought things right back to the intractable impasse.
Boehner ended Obama’s feint by saying that he was being kept fully informed by McConnell and presumed that the president would be fully informed by his own vice president (zing!). He added that he believed that any deal crafted with the vice president’s help would convince enough House Democrats to vote yes to make up for no votes of tea party Republicans (zing!). Obama was assured by staff that the McConnell-Biden negotiations would prevent the crazies from grabbing the steering wheel because Biden provided a degree of control in the White House. The president conceded and the mano a mano negotiating between McConnell and Biden – both known as skilled and perceptive negotiators – continued.
Questioning Obama’s approach
Throughout the struggle, the president’s approach struck many as illogical. According to people from both parties and in the White House, the president decided early not to gamble that he would “win” a debt ceiling impasse that resulted in default. But by sticking to a losing position, he played a game of chicken with the calendar. He upped the odds of default even more by demanding that potential deals be presented to him for his approval or rejection before being voted on in the House and Senate. That took time as the president rejected a few possible deals and amended at least one to the point that its chief sponsor could no longer support it. Then the demand was ignored.
All the time, the tea parties kept saying no to new taxes. Many called them crazy or worse. Missed in this blistering angst is a simple but reliable truth: Being thought of as crazy has advantages. One advantage: The people who call you crazy may assume that you really are crazy. They will, therefore, figure that you just might pull down the building and destroy everything. We know that most of the tea partiers refused to compromise. They stood their ground. They told us they would not yield, before, during and after the debt ceiling crisis. They never wavered. So for all we know, the tea party Republicans just might have pulled down everything – except that the president tossed in the towel.
The tea parties stared down Obama and the Democrats in Congress. They stared down their own Republican leadership. They won.
Make no mistake: The conservatives also won. During the contentious negotiations, a re-orientation of the starting point for developing future federal budgets seems to have occurred. Instead of an emphasis on appropriations and earmarks, with ever-growing federal programs, federal budgets may now begin with program cuts.
What would Reagan do?
We have an example of how the image of being a little crazy can affect events. President Reagan was a sportscaster, an actor, a union leader, a pitchman and a president. He was also underestimated. During the 1980 campaign, his detractors called him dumb, demented and dangerous. They said he was a warmonger, a cowboy who would nuke Teheran if the 52 American hostages were not freed. Shortly before his inauguration, his incoming national security team started feeding Iran the line that Reagan, unstable and angry, was going to order an attack soon after he took office. The Iranians unleased a tirade of hostility and threats of retaliation. Then, a few minutes after Reagan took the oath of office, Iran released the hostages.
Would Reagan have attacked Iran? He never said. Most people close to the situation understood that the perception of craziness can be a powerful political tool. The despots of the Arab Spring lost control when they fulfilled their threats of force. How much more powerful is a weapon unused than one used? Reagan knew the answer.
If you had walked around the House and Senate office buildings in the days after the debt ceiling bill was enacted, you would have noticed a level of stress that is unusual when the elected members of Congress are away from Washington. Normally, when the bosses are away, the staffers relax and plan their own get-aways to the beach or the mountains. But an awareness of change was apparent. Democratic staffers were sullen. They knew things had changed. Tea party Republican staffers were ebullient. They were already at work on the next mission. Other Republican staff members were guarded, hopeful but wary.
They all know that they will be in uncharted territory when Congress returns after Labor Day. In a sense, the tea parties accomplished much more of their agenda, much sooner, than anyone imagined they would. The entitlement state has stalled. The liberal agenda is no longer the starting point. In this new reality, most Democrats and many Republicans will not be able to adjust. But the tea parties give signs that they may overplay their hand.
Their victory, so satisfying to tea party supporters, has left many other voters troubled. Most Americans like the idea of compromise. Will we have a collision between the tea parties, with their promise of reform, and moderate voters, who prefer less excitement and more conciliation? The voters, after all, get to decide who goes to Washington.
If you do not get elected or reelected, you have no vote in Congress. Time will tell, but someone might want to remind the tea party Republicans that hubris can take away their votes.