Green Room

Does the debt ceiling blame game matter?

posted at 10:31 am on July 15, 2011 by

A number of politicians and pundits on the right (e.g., Sen. Mitch McConnell, Charles Krauthammer — though the latter is singing a different tune this morning) tend to view the current standoff between Pres. Obama and Congressional Republicans over raising the debt ceiling in large part through the prism of the blame game. (Oddly, Karl Rove claims Obama owns this problem, even though he was fearing a government shutdown would boost Obama a few months back.) The GOP — and elements of the right more generally — remain haunted by the ghosts of 1995, when legend has it Bill Clinton vanquished Newt Gingrich in a standoff, destroying the GOP brand and easing the path to Clinton’s re-election.

To be sure, you don’t have to look far to find a public opinion poll showing the public will blame the GOP if the debt limit is not raised. But does it matter?

Political scientist John Sides reminds us that it’s the economy, silly:

Assume there is no deal and then assume, as [Treasury Secretary] Geithner and others have warned, that there are serious consequences for the economy when the debt ceiling isn’t raised. This will hurt Obama. And it will hurt him more than it will hurt the Republican Party. Presidents suffer the consequences of a bad economy. Divided government does not change this. Beware pundits who see silver linings for Obama in this scenario.

Read the whole thing, with all the graphs and such. Liberal Nate Silver tells his readers to question these models. That might seem odd, coming from the former sabremetrician, though it’s not the first time he’s done it since the economic data started looking truly bad for Obama. TNR’s Jonathan Chait prays the business elite will intervene, or that more soaring oratory from Obama will make the difference (just like during the debate over ObamaCare, when the president moved public opinion to his… oh, wait). I apologize for being skeptical of the assertion that “we’ve never seen this before” when the right could make the same sort of arguments. Our national debt is increasing at a rate even the Obama administration admits is unsustainable. Nevertheless, as Jake Tapper, Allahpundit, Ace and Verum Serum have all noted, Obama seems to prefer no deal to a even a short-term deal; what amount of speechifying obscures that?

Moreover, the sui generis assertion contradicts the original establishment claim that we have seen this before in 1995-96. And what about the 1995 example in particular? Dan Laughlin and David A. Graham can give you plenty of reasons why 2012 won’t be 1996. The economy is worse (for which Obama will take much of the blame; he can blame G.W. Bush, but Obama hasn’t pulled us out of the ditch and he’s The One on the ballot). Obama is not as skilled as Clinton; Boehner is not the high-profile target Gingrich was.

Moreover, the impact of the 1995 government shutdown was much less than the legend suggests. As Clinton rode the economy to a less than 50% victory, the GOP lost nine seats in the House, but picked up two Senate seats. In gross numbers, 15 GOP freshmen lost or quit in 1996 (57 were re-elected). That’s hardly a catastrophe, especially in context of the period. Republicans won control of both houses of Congress in 1994 for the first time since the Great Depression in an enormous midterm wave. The demographics of the 1996 election were always going to be more favorable to the Dems, especially in a decent economy. Most of the House seats lost in 1996 were in blue (or blue-leaning) states like Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Wisconsin, Washington and Oregon. Was anyone shocked that Michael Flanagan lost Dan Rostenkowski’s old seat in Chicago to Rod Blagojevich? Not really. Given how far the pendulum swung in 1994, the fact that the House GOP lost only nine net seats with an incumbent Democrat presiding over a good economy does not suggest voters were out to punish Republicans over the government shutdown (unless they lived in places prone to punish Republicans on general principle).

Of course, it does not necessarily follow that people on the right should not care about raising the debt ceiling. If a failure to raise the limit precipitated a financial panic or a double-dip recession, higher interest rates or lower economic growth would only make the national debt a bigger problem. Sen. McConnell seems motivated by those concerns as well as partisan ones. But Mark Tapscott, Kevin D. Williamson, William Kristol, Byron York and others have all identified actions Congressional Republicans can take that are better solutions than McConnell’s contingency plan. Ace is probably correct in surmising that McConnell’s plan would not cause Obama to own increases in the debt ceiling. Fortunately, voters will almost certainly force Obama to own the economy. If Obama wants to risk a financial panic or double-dip by insisting on massive tax increases, people may tell pollsters they blame the GOP… and maybe they will. But the blame will fall more heavily on Obama at the ballot box.

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Yes, it matters. Trump is right – the Rs are stupid, stupid and scared negotiators.

Schadenfreude on July 15, 2011 at 2:10 PM

You have to remember, Obama is the “present” politician, he can’t take a stand on an issue since it might be used against him in a future election. His way of voting present on raising the debt ceiling is to set a deadline, demagogue the issue until the deadline is reached, then claim he has no choice but to sign whatever bill Congress gives him. He’ll blame Republicans for a crappy bill and tell the left that it wasn’t his fault, he had no choice, that Social Security was at risk, etc.

xdwall on July 15, 2011 at 2:14 PM

The Republicans will never win in the media. So they should just do the right thing (massive cuts). The economy will improve and Obama will probably get reelected, even though he fought against them.

If the Republicans do the wrong thing (keep spending like an identity thief), the economy will continue on the road to depression and the Republicans will get blamed by their base for caving.

zmdavid on July 15, 2011 at 3:00 PM

To be sure, you don’t have to look far to find a public opinion poll showing the public will blame the GOP if the debt limit is not raised. But does it matter?

The MSM has been telling people for months now that if there is a government shutdown it will be just like ’95 when the Republican’s got the blame, but that doesn’t mean that’s how it will actually shake out this time.

FloatingRock on July 15, 2011 at 3:57 PM

If a failure to raise the limit precipitated a financial panic or a double-dip recession, higher interest rates or lower economic growth would only make the national debt a bigger problem.

Exactly! Our stupid, stupid government won’t stop borrowing even at higher interest rates because they are still playing with house money. They just don’t care.

JavelinaBomb on July 15, 2011 at 5:37 PM

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