Backbenchers with Pretensions to the Front

The whole debt ceiling thing seems to be winding up, as we knew it would, at the eleventh hour. Apparently Republicans are quite content to push the financial system to the brink of ruin, and endure partial slides in all markets, just to make an idiotic point. Even as the crisis terminates, let’s investigate what we’ve learned. Turns out, very little.

Senator Rubio’s (R-FL) speech on the debt ceiling apparently marks him as a future Republican leader: impassioned, well-informed, and with a coherent vision. I don’t see it. I see a well-spoken ideologue, true. But also a junior Senator clearly outclassed by a senior.

Justifying his party’s extremism, Rubio apparently takes solace in the fact that then-Senators Biden and Obama made speeches to similar effect the last time the debt ceiling came up. Both pledged to — and did — vote against an increase. But the difference, which Kerry appreciates and Rubio ignores, is that neither Obama nor Biden were party leaders at that time, and neither ever had the chance to actually force the issue. Their votes were symbolic, with little to no actual effect on policy. To the contrary, Republicans have allowed themselves to be ruled by their doctrine, without regard to any supervening responsibility.

What Biden and Obama did is appropriate backbencher behavior; but not appropriate majority behavior. You see, when a party comes into power, we generally expect responsibility to humble and mediate each individual member’s partisan impulses. Like Jeff Toobin observed about conservatives on the Supreme Court, it’s easy to talk about big doctrinal changes when in dissent, but comparatively rarer for the same Justice to, when given a chance, actually pull the trigger and initiate a sweeping legal change.

Republicans display no such restraint. And, more worryingly, they don’t appear to appreciate that they should. In unbroken line, from Bush to Boehner, Republicans have displayed no squeamishness about taking a mandate, no matter how small, and running as far right with it as absolutely possible. It’s divisive, bad for the country, unpatriotic, and counterproductive. Our politics isn’t really designed to accommodate such willful disregard of the middle. Whether acted out on the large- and the small-scale, this type of behavior has a way of eroding decency and tearing communities apart.

And as long as it continues, no matter how well Rubio speaks — without pause, break, or “um,” which is actually quite impressive — he’ll still look like an ideologue, and the bumbling Kerry will still, comparatively, look like a statesman.



  1. “But the difference, which Kerry appreciates and Rubio ignores, is that neither Obama nor Biden were party leaders at that time, and neither ever had the chance to actually force the issue. Their votes were symbolic, with little to no actual effect on policy.”

    That’s nonsense. The reason why they were able to vote that way is because they weren’t up for re-election. It’s well known that there is a lot of horse trading in Congress. A senator or rep that is up for re-election might not be in a position to cast a principled, but difficult vote so it’s traded with someone else. He takes the safe vote and someone else who isn’t up for re-election or is in a safe seat takes the risky vote. It’s very common. If Biden or Obama had been facing tough re-elections they would have also taken the easy way out.

    The key difference seems to be that the GOP isn’t afraid of re-election fights and so they are ALL standing on principle. Maybe that’s patriotism, maybe it’s naivity, or maybe it’s confidence in your position.

  2. None of that seems to detract from my point: Obama & Biden were able to vote recklessly because it didn’t matter, to them or the country. Rubio & co. vote recklessly when it DOES matter. Especially because — as the polls indicate — it’s what their constituencies want.

  3. One’s man recklessness is another man’s principle. They clearly came out winners in this, the President is further hurt with his base and spending cuts continue to be a priority.

    Democrats, especially the President, seem amazingly content to just keep kicking the can down the road on federal spending. The last election seemed to be a clear indication that the American public disagrees with this strategy.

    1. “The last election seemed to be a clear indication that the American public disagrees with this strategy.”

      The American public said the economy and jobs was the most important issue. Democrats think kicking the can down the road on the deficit, helps us deal with the economy. As some Republicans parroted when they said that tax increases would hurt recovery, which also contributes to the deficit.

      Either way, the American public said they supported Democratic proposals on taxes and to not to cut social programs.

      So, I think saying there was a “clear indication” that the public supports Republican strategy, is overstated.

      1. The public are really part of the problem here, because they want the deficit to be dealt with; but they don’t want cuts to social spending, which will be necessary, or tax increases, which will also be necessary.

        This is a sentence I never expected to write, but the US politicians could really learn something from their Greek colleagues here: Ignore the public, do whatever needs to be done to rectify the situation, then take the fallout as it comes later.

  4. I suppose if your “principles” compel you to force the country to the brink of default without any regard to responsibility, then yes, that is acting on principle. I’m not sure that makes it somehow okay.

  5. Let’s note that you said ‘brink of defaut’.

    I once stood on the brink of a cliff… and yet I’m still here. Complaining about what almost happened kind of sounds like trying to manufacture a crisis.

    1. Except there are strong indications that the FAILURE to make the debt ceiling increase a legislatively clean and routine action will be the reason we get a ratings downgrade. While both Moody’s and S&P were pessimistic about the long-term US financial picture, neither was contemplating a down grade until this sad political kabuki started. So in this case, taking us to the brink may well have been harmful in both the long and short term.

      And sadly it all started when the President (whom I shall now call a DINO) refused to request a clean debt ceiling increase in December.

  6. I once almost shot a man — I didn’t, but I still went to jail! I tried your argument on the judge, but for some reason he was having none of it.

    (Future opp. researchers: this is a joke.)

  7. Don’t you have to prove intent to be convicted of attempted murder?

    There’s no evidence to believe that Republicans were actually willing to default. This was a negotiation and the GOP won. The end.

    1. Willingness to induce default aside, the damage is partially already done, anyways. And who says Republicans won? Looks to me like the baseline assumption is the Bush tax cuts expiry. Which is a big deal, no?

      1. “And who says Republicans won?”

        From what I am reading and seeing today – well, everybody. Obama’s base think he’s a wimp and the Right is more convinced than ever that they can steamroll him.

        1. Sure, they are convinced they can steamroll him, but that doesn’t mean they won. When interest rates rise for all sorts of things, when unemployment continues to remain above 9%, and when the economy continues to show the slowest growth since the Great Depression, Republicans will have to answer as to why their contractionary solution didn’t work. And their answer won’t be able to correct reality.

      2. It looks to me like everyone hates it (a good compromise!). We gave up on immediate tax hikes, but Republicans also let defense cuts onto the table, in a serious way, and accepted the premise that heightened spending is necessary to pull us out of recession, by agreeing to cuts so backloaded that only 1% of them will take place this fiscal year. Oh, and since the majority aren’t immediate… they can always be modified in a more favorable/reasonable/Democratic climate. Which means that the GOP gave up its only chip in exchange for a deal that does almost nothing that can’t be undone .

        1. So the cuts are backloaded but the tax conversation will start from scratch – and with a President that is proven to be weak at he negotiating table.

          The truth is that much of the base won’t read the fine print and for those that do, at best this looks like stalling for re-election. How much longer are they going to put up with that?

          And here’s what the base is saying today:

          “I am asking sincerely and openly: given that I have the commitments I’ve laid out above, how can I possibly support Barack Obama? He bragged– bragged– yesterday that this deal would be lowering non-defense discretionary spending to its lowest levels since the Eisenhower administration. That is, he bragged about his role in ending essential government programs that defend our environment, educate our children, provide crucial scientific and medical research, and in a myriad of ways contribute to the flourishing of our country and our people. At some point, the charade can’t continue. This is not merely a person who doesn’t deserve my support. This is a person who is unequivocally and demonstrably not an American liberal, and someone who has no interest in defending the historical constituencies or commitments of the Democratic party.”

        2. I am enthralled by your ability to find supportive posts from no-name bloggers. It is, after all, the first duty of the Concern Troll.

          1. Well Freddie is hardly a no-name blogger. Andrew Sullivan has quoted his stuff a bunch of times (though to be fair, Sullivan has quoted me too) and I believe Freddie’s been quoted by Megan McArdle and several other folks as well. The problem is Ames, you are a blogger that doesn’t really keep up with the blogging community.

            And ‘concern troll’ implies I am feigning concern over Obama’s plight with the non-Kool Aid base. I’m not. I think it’s fantastic.

          2. Sully quoted me once too! It was exciting.

            Also this. Apparently you guys have a problem?

            1. Yeah, McArdle just responded to Klein:

              “I think this is right. But I also think it’s true of the Democrats: they are going to face unprecedented conflicts between their constituencies in the decades to come. Fundamentally, we’re bumping up against the willingness of the American public to pay more taxes, or accept spending cuts. Some constituencies are going to lose. Republicans are going to have to decide whether they’d rather have lower taxes, or a stronger military. And Democrats are going to have to decide who they care about more: old people, or poor people.”

        3. Also, it would strike me as more relevant that the conservative blogs, even top-level, don’t seem to be celebrating. They’re pretty upset, instead.

  8. I’ll comment about the Debt Deal and y’all’s discussion when I can use a computer and not my smartphone (#1).

    In the meantime, if you’re gonna bash Republicans in your posts, why not bash that douchey imbecile Lamar Smith from Texas?

  9. Who won? Nobody.

    The main, long-term result of this whole mess has been to drive home to the markets that US securities are not quite the rock-solid investment they were once thought to be. So even if by some miracle your debt rating doesn’t get downgraded, I think you’re still in for a lot of pain in the long run.

    Frankly, the best indication of how big a mess your politics have turned into is precisely that almost everyone is asking “so who won?”, when they should be asking “how can we make sure we make sure we never, ever get ino this sort of situation again?”

    1. Absolutely spot on. The news here in Australia basically is the US can’t pay its bills, not a good look internationally. Most people don’t know the difference between the two parties or why this happened. They are not familiar with the nuances of how the US governments works. All they see is this monolithic block called “America” and today “America” looks pretty bad.

  10. Marius is right. The Republicans didn’t get shit out of this. “Future” cuts aren’t going to happen, and pretending like they will is an intentional lie. Only one of the Democrats’ three sacred cows gets poked, let alone slaughtered, butchered, and grilled like they all ought to be. There’s no real opportunity to bring the issue up again until after the election. Am I missing anything?

    I’m not clear on the tax-related elements, but I’m pretty sure they’re like the across-the-board-discretionary cuts: using a sledgehammer to do a jigsaw’s job. “Letting the Bush Tax Cuts expire” sounds great, but a wholesale restructuring of the tax system is what’s needed. Meanwhile, as I’ve said before, whether “government spending” is good or bad depends on what it’s being spent on. Take any of those budget-balancer simulators online, and I guarantee you, you’re going to see “expand spending on ____” options you’re going to want to pick. Honestly, I’m surprised Philip hasn’t commented about that.

    And AK’s right: this debt ceiling sideshow’s been farcical. The problem has never been a “ceiling” that isn’t even a real limit – after all, a self-imposed “limit” the borrower can raise at will doesn’t mean shit. This deal raises it, what, 2.2 trillion dollars? They could have raised it to 2.2 Avogadro’s Number dollars and the underlying problem of America’s insolvency would still be there. And while I know you and an unfathomably large number of Americans believe that it’s morally acceptable for three of the US government’s four largest expenditures to be making productive people subsidize unproductive people, it’s long been clear that they’re unsustainable and cuts to them are a practical necessity.

    Finally, Marius, I sat through all wasted thirty minutes of Obama’s and Boehner’s chest-thumping speeches last week, and I’m having trouble figuring out how “we insist on these cuts and are unwilling to consider raising taxes” is substantively different enough from “we insist that taxes be raised and cuts to these programs are off the table” that the one is bad dogmatism and the other isn’t. Well, if you disagree with one dogma and agree with the other, you can make a distinction that way, but then you’re just dressing up “I disagree with you”. And while crushing those who disagree with you and giving them the damnatio memorae is fine, be honest that it’s what you’re doing. There’s no shame in admitting that you believe the world would ideally be populated only by yourself, your friends, your slaves, and the dead. Everybody believes that’s the way the world should be. Most people just won’t admit it due to social pressures.

    1. “There’s no real opportunity to bring the issue up again until after the election. Am I missing anything?”

      If the Left goes after the Bush tax cuts it starts all over again.

  11. WHEN the left goes after the Bush tax cuts, either the tea party will ask why the Republicans suddenly don’t care about the deficit, or they’re idiots. Personally I do bet on the latter outcome, though. Ugh.

    1. Technically we don’t have to “go after” the Bush/Obama tax cuts – they have a sunset date in their current provisions. What we do have to do is decide if we want to extend or make permanent the ones for people making less the $250K a year.

  12. There’s no way around getting rid of the Bush tax cuts, and probably raise taxes even further. There simply isn’t enough money in the federal budget to deal with the deficit through cuts alone.

    You could eliminate every last dollar of discretionary spending (including the entire military) and it still wouldn’t be enough to balance the budget. Likewise, you could eliminate Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid entirely, and again it still wouldn’t be enough. Revenues have to increase, whether through taxes or some form of VAT or whatever is necessary.

    1. “There’s no way around getting rid of the Bush tax cuts, and probably raise taxes even further. There simply isn’t enough money in the federal budget to deal with the deficit through cuts alone.”

      That’s probably true BUT even by raising the rates on the folks at the top we aren’t going to get out of the red. THAT is the conversation i want to hear Democrats have with the American people. When they have the guts to talk about raising taxes on the people below the top bracket then we’ll know they are serious about fiscal reform OR as McArdle points out, they can start talking about real entitlement reform.

      On the flip side, if the Right refuses to put defense spending on the table we will know they remain unserious about fiscal reform. IMO those are the two pivotal decisions each side has to make.

      1. Mike,
        I’ve said repeatedly from with the federal budget apparatus that tax expenditures need to be totally reassessed, and that will mean reducing or eliminating loopholes and credits for lower income brackets. But if you believe the math in Simpson-Bowles, eliminating ALL tax expenditures helps drive the debt down significantly (a Republican stated economic goal) while also allowing long-term decreases in marginal federal income tax rates (another stated Republican economic goal). So why won’t your side get on board with the revenue part of the equation?

        1. I can’t speak for everyone but my assumption is that a lot of conservatives feel like me which is that we believe sending Uncle Sam more revenue before spending is under control is ludicrous. It will just trigger more spending.

          1. Frankly, I don’t think you’re in a position to allow yourself the luxury of ideology. The deficit and debt will have to be reduced, and that is impossible without both spending cuts and revenue increases.

            1. I’m okay with both – but IMO the cuts have to come first.

              1. How about compromising and doing both at the same time?

                1. Fair enough – Republicans have been very honest about the cuts they want to see. When are Democrats going to be HONEST about the tax increases we need?

                  1. Are Republicans actually being honest about the necessary cuts? Are there any influential Republicans (keeping in mind your usual strict definition of ‘influential’) who are willing to support cuts in e.g. defence or farm subsidies, or an increase in the retirement age?

    2. I still think Democrats are willing to let all the tax cuts expire, I’ve seen that vocalized on the left plenty of times.

      Politically, pragmatically, economically, it’s easier to go piecemeal though.

      Either way, raising rates on the top goes much rather in getting us out of red than everyone else.

      If you raise the rates of the people who own 90% of all the wealth in our country, to contribute around 90% of tax revenue in this country, messing with that bottom 10% is much less effective for the balance sheets.

      1. A lot of my opinion about raising taxes/cutting spending is that it’s about reforming the way we think. If we all feel the pinch we all have a better perspective on spending. To quote the Captain America, “A weak manknows the value of strength.” The analogy is that a taxed man knows the value of the programs he asks for. When the programs seemingly come at no cost, everyone asks for more.

        That’s why I prefer spending cuts first because we have to learn to make-do with less and THEN talk about giving Uncle Sam more money. Until then it’s like giving a beer to a drunk.

        1. You could turn that argument around, and say that the people affected by social spending cuts will probably be more likely to accept them if they see the people at the top contribute as well (through higher taxes).

          1. I don’t hink that logic will work in the US. If people at the bottom lose programs they will just want more taxation – and liberal ideology says that the government should do that.

            1. I don’t really see the problem, because simple math tells us those taxes will have to go up no matter what.

              1. That doesn’t answer my point. i was saying that the people at the bottom will NOT be more likely to accept any cuts in programs no matter how much we tax the people at the top.

                1. I don’t quite see why they wouldn’t. Seems logical to me.

                  1. My 100% partisan response is that Democrats have been very successful in establishing a victim mentality among the poor in this country. They will not accept cuts quietly.

                    1. Assuming for the sake of argument that’s true, wouldn’t the effect of that victim mentality precisely be smaller if the pain is being spread around more equitably? Conversely, if it only hits the poor through cuts, wouldn’t they actually be confirmed in that mentality?

                    2. Well first off – I don’t think cuts only hurt the poor. For example, much of the middle class (myself included) has depended on Pell grants to pay for their college educations. Those will get cut. Education programs affect more than the poor. Etc. But the poor believe their programs are sacrosanct because, well, they are poor. What they will demand instead is tax increases on the middle class and additional increases on the upper class before they will accept entitlement cuts willingly.

                    3. To be honest, that doesn’t seem like an unreasonable thing to ask, especially since I’m hard pressed to think of other ways the rich segment have contributed much so far, or are likely to do in the future.

                    4. I don’t know about you but my employers have a bunch of money. They share some of it with me. That’s how I pay the bills, yo.

                    5. Isn’t it actually the company you work for that shares that money, rather than the employers as individuals?

                    6. Somewhere at the top someone is cashing some big checks.

                    7. Sure, but raising the tax rate on those guys isn’t going to hurt the company that actually provides the jobs and salaries.

                    8. There are a lot of companies where the profits are claimed as personal income.

                    9. I assume that would be sole proprietors? They have the option of incorporating – which they should probably consider anyway if they’re large enough to have a non-trivial number of employees.

                    10. There are a lot of reasons whypeople choose to file their taxes that way. Forcing them to incorporate to avoid higher taxes doesn’t really seem fair.

                    11. NO, the media has been successful at promulgating that victim narrative, but actual poor people – and I have volunteered through the years with many organizations working to help economically disadvantaged Americans – generally want to do better for themselves and their families. They often lack educational or experiential tools to achieve their dreams, and the economy is not aligned to give them those tools absent the government program that you deride so easily. THAT is why they won’t suffer cuts to social programs lightly, and I would argue they (and we shouldn’t).

                    12. MY anecdotal experience is that those programs that need the most reform because they only offer the status quo verses real mobility (re: welfare verses Pell) are the ones that people will balk the most at losing. What I would call the ‘subsistence’ poor that are content to just make it from day to day – they are the the people who will fight hardest for those programs (and since they are among the most dependable voters for the DNC…)

                  2. The fact that people call those programs “entitlements” should give the reason they wouldn’t away, I think.

  13. Don’t the Bush Tax Cuts (TM) have a sunset clause that kicks in next year?

%d bloggers like this: