Green Room

Buck up, shipmates!

posted at 1:18 am on August 3, 2011 by

In strategic terms, here’s what just happened.  Obama tried to force battle on his terms, and Republicans refused the engagement.  No one has lost or won the big battle over “how the republic shall live,” because we haven’t had it yet.  Accepting battle on Obama’s terms was never a good idea.  Some thoughts:

1.  Rush Limbaugh has been right about something all along:  the 2 August date was an artificial construct.  It was never a date on which the US had to default on our debt service, nor was it a date on which government would have to grind to a halt.

2.  In outlining the case, it’s worth pointing this out one more time:  if federal spending had remained at the level of 2008, 8-2-2011 would have been just another day.  It was not necessary to add $3.7 trillion to the federal debt in the last 31 months.

Even taking reduced revenues into account – the product of a faltering economy – the cumulative annual shortfall in 2009, 2010, and 2011 need not have exceeded $2.5 trillion.

Of course, $2.5 trillion is a ridiculous number, but adding that amount to the total debt at the end of the Bush administration — $10.6 trillion – produces a sum of about $13.1 trillion, or about $1.2 trillion less than the debt ceiling of $14.294 trillion set by Congress in February 2010.  At the 2008-level spending rate, a debt ceiling of $14.294 trillion need not have been encountered until sometime in FY2013.  It’s because we spent faster than we were spending even during the Bush years that we encountered the debt ceiling in August of 2011.

3.  Obama’s policies, whatever their purposes were, are what precipitated the crisis deadline that just passed.  Much is made of the fact that the sheer size of our mandatory spending makes it a fiscal behemoth compared to discretionary spending, and that there have been natural increases on the mandatory side.  But there are reasons why that doesn’t parse as an excuse for the Obama deficits.  Here are a couple:

First, Obama has added to mandatory spending as well as to discretionary spending.  A spending gimmick in the Obamacare bill has already produced $105 billion in new mandatory spending in 2011 – about the same amount as the increase in Social Security benefits payments between 2010 and 2011, when Baby Boomers started turning 65.  That $105 billion is to be expended annually on a mandatory basis for the next 9 years.

(For his proposed 2012 budget, Obama has also reclassified certain types of spending from discretionary to mandatory: Pell grants and some transportation expenditures.  That accounting legerdemain moves about $68 billion onto the “untouchable” rolls of mandatory spending in FY2012.  Moreover, some of the stimulus funds have been funneled through Medicare and food stamp programs, beefing up expenditures by those programs beyond what demography and eligibility factors would dictate.  Not all of the increase in “mandatory spending” programs has been due to eligibility triggers in the American population.)

Second, however, the lion’s share of mandatory spending increases – the increases in Social Security and Medicare payouts due to demographic factors – was entirely predictable.  (Spending on welfare, unemployment, and food stamps was not quite as predictable, but certainly could have been foreseen with some accuracy given economic trends.)

With mandatory spending bound to increase by a largely predictable amount, and revenues declining, a president could have foregone the $787 billion stimulus package, and proposed net cuts in the spending he had control over.  That wouldn’t have prevented annual deficits, but it could have held them constant or reduced them instead of increasing them.  Obama and the Democratic Congress had that option from January 2009 to January 2011—but they didn’t use it.  If they had, it might have been possible to add even less than $2.5 trillion – the figure suggested by a continuation of the 2008 spending level – to the national debt.

4.  So much for the structural causes of the 8-2-2011 deadline.  Now for the handling of that deadline.  At no time prior to 8-2-2011 did the deadline have to become a threat hanging over our debt service, Social Security and Medicare payouts, or the operation of the military.  Sometime after the 8-2-2011 date such a crisis could have arisen, but nothing mandated it on 2 August.  How the funds on-hand were managed would have been up to the president.

In stage-managing the 2 August date, Obama (and the Senate Democrats) chose the option that invited a pitched battle at the deadline.  The point here is not whether Obama is a terrible person, it’s that if the battle had been fought over the 2 August deadline, it would have been fought on the terms he set up.

His handling of the debt-ceiling deadline is what defined the problem and set up the stakes and risks.  There never had to be a “crisis” on 2 August; objectively, the problem could have been defined differently.  It just wasn’t.

The president holds the high card if the crisis is defined on his terms.  Although there need not have been a threat to debt service, Social Security, and military pay, Obama had the discretion to make good on the implied threat.  He could also, by contrast, have issued assurances about what his priorities would be, in order to mitigate fear and uncertainty – but he didn’t.  In either case, he had the discretion to act on his own authority, at least within a timeframe of weeks.

The very fact that he cast the situation unnecessarily as a calendar-date crisis is an indicator of how he would have handled a post-2 August showdown.  But a perfect prognostication in that regard wasn’t necessary for Republicans to judge – probably correctly – that giving battle on his terms was a bad idea.

A number of people did want to see Obama’s “bluff” called:  they wanted to go past 2 August without a deal and see what he would do.  That would have been fighting the battle on his terms; we will never know if it was possible to win that battle, since it wasn’t fought.

But because it wasn’t fought, Obama was unable to steamroll the GOP on a tax-rate increase.  The point is also correct – and salient – that the big thing the Tea Party Republicans have done is change the debate.  Unlike every previous debt-ceiling negotiation, this one has not closed the books on the underlying issues regarding the size of government, for which the debt ceiling is a proxy.  The contingency built into the latest deal is real:  the Democrats will have to fight again to realize gains from this agreement.  That has never been the case before.  Yes, the Republicans have to fight again too.  But the outcome is not foreordained.

This is a tough time for the republic.  A whole lot of people who don’t care to think about government all the time are having to do just that.  Republicans, libertarians, conservatives, independents, low-information voters and former low-info-vos – millions of people who can never match the left in natural passion for “government” are having to spend time and effort on it, because the direction it’s going threatens to destroy our way of life.  If this summer doesn’t teach us the wisdom of keeping government small and not letting it acquire an ever-lengthening lease on us, nothing will.

But make no mistake, the campaign for smaller government continues.  It hasn’t been stopped.  In a sense it’s just getting started.  Of course the Democrats have unleashed the talking points about how this round went to their advantage, and Republicans will have no choice but to concede everything in the next scheduled confrontation.  That’s how they prosecute their campaign, and as long as their man is in the White House, they can’t be overridden on the definition of the crisis.  Don’t despair over that.  Obama defined the crisis this time, but he didn’t get the Republicans to accept battle on his terms.

It may not be “the end of the beginning” yet; but maybe it is.  People won’t agree in medias res on when the end of the beginning falls.  Churchill perceived the end of the beginning on 20 November 1942, when Hitler’s armies occupied most of Europe and roamed Western Russia, his navy was sinking allied shipping right and left, and his air force was successfully bombing targets in England and killing hundreds of civilians each month.  The bloody campaigns to recapture the territories of Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands had barely begun.

Few could imagine what victory would even look like, much less discern progress toward it.  Still, the US had just invaded North Africa, and Stalin had just launched a counteroffensive in Western Russia.  Conditions were grim, but was Churchill wrong to focus on the resources, plans, and hopes he did have, rather than what he didn’t, in characterizing the situation in that dark November?

If great fights could only be won by a series of uncontested victories, with no setbacks, no stalemates, and no periods when things look bleak, World War II would have been over by mid-1940.  We’re still in the fight, shipmates. It’s not over.  Don’t give up the ship.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at The Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, The Weekly Standard online, and her own blog, The Optimistic Conservative.

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It may not be “the end of the beginning” yet; but maybe it is. People won’t agree in medias res on when the end of the beginning falls. Churchill perceived the end of the beginning on 20 November 1942, when Hitler’s armies occupied most of Europe and roamed Western Russia, his navy was sinking allied shipping right and left, and his air force was successfully bombing targets in England and killing hundreds of civilians each month. The bloody campaigns to recapture the territories of Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands had barely begun.

Few could imagine what victory would even look like, much less discern progress toward it. Still, the US had just invaded North Africa, and Stalin had just launched a counteroffensive in Western Russia. Conditions were grim, but was Churchill wrong to focus on the resources, plans, and hopes he did have, rather than what he didn’t, in characterizing the situation in that dark November?

That was when we had the will to fight, J.E. That was when we killed Nazi spies outright with nary a thought. We wouldn’t have the stomach to win WWII if it happened today, and though I’m sad to say it, I don’t think we will have the stomach to even do what needs to be done politically now.

gryphon202 on August 3, 2011 at 1:43 AM

We’re still in the fight, shipmates. It’s not over. Don’t give up the ship.

Not quite Belushi, but good.

Fallon on August 3, 2011 at 8:55 AM

Great article, JE.

A number of people did want to see Obama’s “bluff” called: they wanted to go past 2 August without a deal and see what he would do. That would have been fighting the battle on his terms; we will never know if it was possible to win that battle, since it wasn’t fought.

I was in that camp. Framing it as “his terms” vs. our own does make sense though, if only in retrospect. It’s all about ideology for me so I’m always up for that fight and tend to expect the same from our officials (I know, silly me). When our philosophy and principles are continually muddled in these smaller skirmishes, it’s easy to become discouraged.

I’m sad to say it, I don’t think we will have the stomach to even do what needs to be done politically now.

gryphon202 on August 3, 2011 at 1:43 AM

Speaking for myself, I think a lot of it is Hot Air induced inertia (related: “I’ve been on HA for too long” fugue state). I’ve been staying out of the thread wars, reading, but storing my energy for later. :)

Bee on August 3, 2011 at 9:01 AM

Good perspective. This is a Long War, not a skirmish.

It seems that you can’t go wrong with Winston Churchill, even today.

Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein we never had a defeat.
Winston Churchill

We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender!

Brian1972 on August 3, 2011 at 9:24 AM

Not sure of the WWII analogy but understand its use for the Churchill quote.

This is the beginning and there will be setbacks. I’m not confident of victory in the long run, but I am hopeful.

cozmo on August 3, 2011 at 9:25 AM

Not sure of the WWII analogy but understand its use for the Churchill quote.

This is the beginning and there will be setbacks. I’m not confident of victory in the long run, but I am hopeful.

cozmo on August 3, 2011 at 9:25 AM

Given how the debt deal shook out, I’m pretty confident of failure at this point…

/eeyore

gryphon202 on August 3, 2011 at 9:52 AM

Too bad we’ll never know if the Won is the big coward we all think he is. Personally, it’s all about him and his reelection. He’s got the slush fund he needs and now is off to Chicago to tap into some of the evil rich money. Life is good.

Kissmygrits on August 3, 2011 at 10:45 AM

No more DOOM! If you want that you can get a happy helping from AOSHQ or go to any Dem/lib site for greasy mountainous gobs of it.

thebrokenrattle on August 3, 2011 at 10:51 AM

No more DOOM! If you want that you can get a happy helping from AOSHQ or go to any Dem/lib site for greasy mountainous gobs of it.

thebrokenrattle on August 3, 2011 at 10:51 AM

Kiss my pessimistic hind end.

gryphon202 on August 3, 2011 at 11:24 AM

And again I say, Buck up, grypon202! Here’s something we forget about WWII. When it started, we didn’t know how to fight it, any more than we know today “how” to fight this big-government-killing-civilization-with-debt thing.

In the first few years after 1939, segments of people the world over thought they were witnessing the end of civilization. Unlike the strategic “story” of WWI, in WWII Europe fell rapidly to the German armies. France didn’t host four years of meatgrinder trench battles; the Maginot Line was simply circumvented, and what had not happened at all in WWI happened within weeks: Paris was occupied by Hitler’s army and the government of France scattered to the winds.

We know today how it all turned out, but in November 1942, they didn’t. What they knew was that warfare had become even more terrible than it was a quarter century before, and their operational situation was worse than it had been in the evil years of 1915-16.

There was considerable disagreement over how to prosecute the war. New technology and differing strategic ideas made every decision an argument. Nothing looked obvious to the decisionmakers of the time. Our view in hindsight is deceptive in that regard. We are satisfied that it worked, but success wasn’t preordained. No one could see that it was “obvious” that if you took action X, you’d get result Y.

The Cold War is another useful analogy. That was a war we had no idea how to win until Reagan simply tried the things that looked like moral common sense: get rid of MAD, cut the Soviets off from their economic umbilical cord to the West, make the conflict “about” the captive peoples and their territories.

When the 1980 campaign kicked off, the world’s situation looked terrible. 1979 was an “annus terribilis”; many people were certain that the tide against the Western liberal order was too high. The consensus of media, the academy, and politics was that moral common sense about the problem of organized international Marxism was impossible to implement — so they were busy endlessly explaining why we shouldn’t do that anyway.

It was called overly “ideological” to assert that Poles and Nicaraguans (a) really wanted freedom from Communism, and (b) would be better off without Communism. It was called “destabilizing” to say that MAD was an evil concept; it was called “warmongering” to insist that the US and NATO not become weak relative to the USSR and the Warsaw Pact. Anyone who suggested denying trade to the Soviets, to discourage their arsenal building and population oppressing and fomentation of insurrection abroad, was excoriated as an ideologue who hated the Russian people and refused for no good reason to “engage” with the Communist world instead of hurling thermonuclear weapons at it. Never mind that no thermonuclear weapons were being hurled; there was a deeper truth. If it were possible to simulate the hurling of thermonuclear weapons via Microsoft Word, someone would have done it, and Dan Rather would have reported it.

Getting off top dead center in the Cold War standoff was not preordained. Until Reagan did it, we had no example of how to. And many, many people thought in 1979 that we never would.

Things have looked as bleak before to people as they do now. Heck, WWI and the American Civil War had some people thinking all the light was being snuffed out of the world. The American Revolution certainly didn’t start out as a success. In restrospect, the hinge point was the crossing of the Delaware and the Battle of Trenton — early on in the war — but no one saw that at the time. That perilous tactic — one of the hardest to bring off under even the most auspicious conditions — merely kept the war going at a time when things looked exceptionally bleak. It didn’t turn the momentum against the British; it just kept the Continentals in the fight. We were still a long, long way from Yorktown. No one knew there would be a Yorktown.

Outcomes have been uncertain before, and yet turned out the right way. America has been unique in most important respects, and we can be so again. If all outcomes were preordained to favor evil and failure, America wouldn’t even be here. But we are.

J.E. Dyer on August 3, 2011 at 11:40 AM

J.E. Dyer on August 3, 2011 at 11:40 AM

But we had the will! Nobody thought it would be to our advantage to let the Japanese navy have the run of the south Pacific. In all of your optimistic raving, I don’t see any analogue to the bowel movements people are having over the very thought that we might cut Mediscare or Social Insecurity. Piss-poor analogy, if you ask me. Especially since after WWII, economic growth and technological advancement exploded. Now we’re just trying to hang on for dear life, and we don’t have a military that could fight a two-front war anymore.

I’m sorry for being such a gloomy gus, but the reason I fight is because I know what *I* deserve. As far as I’m concerned, the rest of America can go to hell, cause that’s where we’re headed. And I don’t see a fork in the road.

gryphon202 on August 3, 2011 at 12:59 PM

Outcomes have been uncertain before, and yet turned out the right way. America has been unique in most important respects, and we can be so again. If all outcomes were preordained to favor evil and failure, America wouldn’t even be here. But we are.

J.E. Dyer on August 3, 2011 at 11:40 AM

And America is so great…and so wonderful…and so unique…and yet here we are. We’re soft. We’re complacent. And America may in fact end up being a flash-in-the-pan of a grand experiment. Promising, yet somehow destined to fail as once again, people’s natural state is to live in tyranny while longing for freedom.

gryphon202 on August 3, 2011 at 1:00 PM

Guess we’ll have to agree to disagree on this one, gryphon202.

It always looks stupid to some people to insist that the glass is half-full. But it isn’t possible to win a serious conflict over the course of the future with any other mindset.

J.E. Dyer on August 3, 2011 at 2:26 PM

I guess I’m just getting very tired of being relentlessly beaten with this stuff day in and day out. The stress is killing me slowly but surely. It’s an open question if I will survive until November 2012.

hachiban on August 3, 2011 at 11:20 PM

It always looks stupid to some people to insist that the glass is half-full. But it isn’t possible to win a serious conflict over the course of the future with any other mindset.

J.E. Dyer on August 3, 2011 at 2:26 PM

Be that as it may, it’s as scientifically proven fact that pessimists live longer. Think about it, and it actually makes sense. When the only two sure things in life are death and taxes, you can’t count on anything else to go the way you plan. So when things don’t go the way an optimist plans, the optimist is in for disappointment. When things don’t go the way a pessimist plans, the pessimist is in for a pleasant surprise. ;-)

gryphon202 on August 3, 2011 at 11:39 PM