Thursday morning John Boehner settled on a clever idea for avoiding a debt default while still appeasing House conservatives: a no-strings-attached debt-limit increase lasting six weeks, coupled with a refusal to reopen the government until Republicans win concessions from the White House in a longer-term budget deal. The financial markets rejoiced. The media breathed a sigh of relief. Twitter turned downright giddy. And then, around five o’clock, came the White House response: “Meh.” The president wasn’t agreeing to anything that didn’t also end the shutdown, though he did agree to keep talking.
The White House hand is sufficiently strong that it looks like it’ll get its way. Still, I can’t help but wondering: Are you sure you really want that, Mr. President?
Allow me to explain. Up until I heard the specifics of Boehner’s proposal, I was completely against a short-term debt-ceiling increase. If Boehner raised the debt limit for six weeks while reopening the government for the same amount of time under a continuing resolution (CR), it would be impossible for Obama to maintain his posture of not negotiating over the debt limit. Republicans could interpret any concession Obama offered in a long-term budget deal as a concession for raising the debt limit, even if Obama didn’t intend it that way. This would encourage them to threaten default in the future in order to extract more concessions—the precise precedent Obama has insisted he must obliterate.
But Boehner’s idea was pure genius—at least if you’re rooting for the Democrats. It essentially solved the problem I just laid out. After all, polls show the GOP taking on massive amounts of water over the shutdown. There’s simply no way Republicans can hold out for over a month without reopening the government. Boehner wanted to use the shutdown to ensure that Obama negotiated a budget deal in good faith. But the enforcement mechanism he insisted on—government closure—is one that hurts Republicans far more than it hurts Obama politically. That means the GOP would have likely sued for a budget agreement* long before the debt ceiling had to be raised again in six weeks, very likely in the next week.
So Obama could have set aside the debt-limit issue, negotiated his budget deal with an increasingly desperate Boehner, and then refused to negotiate over the debt ceiling, at which point the GOP would be in no position to do anything other than raise it. There’s simply no way the GOP was going to thoroughly piss off the entire country over the shutdown—something the Boehner plan insisted on doing by refusing to reopen the government—then turn around and piss it off even more by threatening to default (something that polls even worse than the shutdown at this point). This was, in fact, the original rationale for rooting for a shutdown. The Boehner plan simply doubled down on that logic, albeit inadvertently.
But, politically at least, it got even better. Just imagine the way it would look to the average voter if the Boehner proposal came to pass. People would immediately ask themselves: Why is it that we can raise the debt ceiling but not reopen the government? The only plausible answer would be that Republicans don’t want to. Republicans would be left to argue that Obama agreed to enough demands that they were willing to raise the debt limit, but not enough that they were willing to open the government. Or they could say Obama didn’t agree to any of their demands, but that they wanted to be magnanimous and offer a unilateral concession. Either way, this would immediately lay bare their hostage-taking game. They would be conceding that it’s completely in their power to call the game off; they just prefer not to.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I understand why the White House and Senate Democrats would insist on reopening the government in addition to raising the debt ceiling as a condition for negotiating. The shutdown has created enormous hardship. It’s taken food and childcare away from needy families, weakened our intelligence capabilities, hurt our efforts to fight disease—the list goes on and on.
The problem is that there’s no deal out there that doesn’t give Republicans something in return for backing down. With the Democrats insisting that the government reopen and the debt ceiling get raised all at once, the concession the Republicans will get in return is timing—both the CR and the debt-limit increase will only last six weeks. But, as I say, that’s a lousy place for Democrats to be, since it effectively commits them to negotiating with the threat of default hanging over their heads.
The alternative is to essentially take the debt limit off the table entirely while letting Republicans keep the government closed, something the GOP can’t sustain much longer anyway. That’s basically what the Boehner plan offers. And that’s why the president should have accepted it on the spot.
Noam Scheiber is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow @noamscheiber
*Obviously the two sides weren't going to work out a ten-year-long grand bargain in a week or two. But I think the GOP would have been sufficiently desperate to agree to a year-long budget deal at higher-than-sequester funding levels with some minor concessions.