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Unforced Errors

The Democrats Have Already Lost the Debt Ceiling Fight

Party leaders thought they had set a trap for Republicans. It hasn’t worked out that way at all.

President Joe Biden
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Six months ago, Democrats were riding high. They had just improbably overperformed in the midterm elections; if it wasn’t for the meltdown of New York’s Democratic Party, they likely would have held onto slim majorities in both chambers of Congress. Their victory in those elections was as much a repudiation of the Republican Party as it was an endorsement of Joe Biden’s first two years—if not more so, given the president’s anemic popularity. Voters were clearly opposed to the GOP’s growing extremism.

And so, the Democrats decided to press their advantage. Instead of raising the debt limit during the lame duck, when they still possessed a narrow advantage in both the House and the Senate, they made the strategic decision to do nothing. When the need to raise the debt limit approached in 2023, the thinking went, the Republicans now in control of the House would once again show their extremism, voters would recoil, and—voila—another Democratic masterstroke. “Although there is grave risk to the economy, the gun is in Republicans’ hands,” a Biden adviser told Politico a week after the midterm elections. “And there is little question as to who will get blamed for this.” Sure, the risks were great—default would be an economic calamity—but the potential rewards were enormous, especially with the 2024 election looming. So the Democrats made a bet: make raising the debt limit the GOP’s responsibility.

One need not have hindsight to see the folly here, which many noted at the time. But as the debt limit hurtles closer—the United States could default in less than two weeks—it looks more and more like a catastrophic miscalculation.

The Republican position on the debt limit is exactly what everyone expected. Although both parties have routinely raised the limit since it originated during World War II without much fuss, Republicans more recently have refused to do so when they’re in the minority in Washington. During Obama’s first term, they have taken the debt limit hostage to try to force the Democrats to make steep cuts to social spending programs, many of which are aimed at helping the poor.

The Democrats knew the Republicans would do this, which is why Biden insisted for months that he would not negotiate over the debt ceiling. And yet here he is today, very much negotiating over the debt ceiling. Cuts are on the table: Over the weekend, Democrats offered to essentially freeze spending on both domestic and military spending, a deal Republicans rejected. The GOP countered with increasing spending for the military, as well as border security—both of which would require even steeper cuts elsewhere.

So Republicans are predictably being unreasonable. But there is no sign yet that the Democrats are getting the outcome they’d hoped for—that voters would recognize that the GOP was acting in bad faith, thereby putting pressure on House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy to cave. Recent polling from ABC and The Washington Post does give Democrats a narrow advantage, but not much of one. An equal number of voters from each party—78 percent—would blame the opposite party for default, not surprising given the level of partisanship at the moment. Thirty-seven percent of independents say they would blame Republicans, with 29 percent blaming Joe Biden and 24 percent blaming both parties equally—hardly a resounding political statement.

To be fair, the Democrats may have ended up in this position anyway. Raising the debt ceiling in the lame-duck session would have required assent from Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, but surely, as The American Prospect’s David Dayen pointed out, they would have been easier to negotiate with than McCarthy. And even if Democrats had accomplished that, Republicans would use the appropriations process to try to extract deep cuts. But the economic risks associated with appropriations are significantly lower, which would increase Democratic leverage: With the debt ceiling, Republicans can threaten to essentially nuke the entire economy unless Democrats capitulate.

No wonder some Democrats are regretting the decision that led to this point. “If I could do one thing different” it would be not hiking the debt limit during the lame duck, Virginia senator Tim Kaine told Politico last week. “And I was saying it at the time … ‘hey, we got the votes.’” One Democratic Senate aide echoed Kaine’s sentiment to Semafor, saying, “We had a lot of time to come up with a plan. And we didn’t.”

Democrats are now in a position that appears to be the worst of both worlds: If the debt ceiling is breached, they will reap much of the political fallout. If it isn’t, they likely will have to agree to significant cuts to crucial programs like welfare and food stamps. Either way, they will complain about the wreckage caused by Republican extremism, and hope voters see their side of it. But the Democrats will only have themselves to blame for this mess.