President Obama may have escaped from the debt ceiling hostage standoff having incurred minimal damage to his agenda, but the long-term damage to the health of the U.S. political system appears to be quite high. Republicans have shown that the debt ceiling makes an effective hostage for the Congressional party to demand concessions from an opposing-party president. Mitch McConnell boasts that this tactic will become a regular part of American politics. This is a nightmare -- a constant ticking bomb that is bound to go off at some point.
How should Democrats treat the issue going forward? Michael Shear of the New York Times predicts Democrats will start reciprocating:
Given the proven power of the issue, it is not hard to imagine a future in which a Democratic minority finds it in their interests to advance a top priority by threatening to hold up a debt ceiling increase for a Republican president.
That would seem rather hypocritical for current Democrats, who all accused their Republican counterparts of playing fast and loose with the American economy. But politicians rarely worry too much about hypocrisy. And given enough time, political realities shift.
As a practical matter, I doubt this. In order to hold the debt ceiling hostage, you need, at the very least, extremely high levels of party discipline (in the House and the Senate, lest the upper chamber openly break ranks and isolate your hostage-taking wing.) You also probably need a propaganda apparatus that can create its own empirical reality in which the experts who warn that failing to lift the debt ceiling would create dire consequences are all wrong. I don't think the Democratic Party has either of these.
But let's think about the question from an abstract perspective. Shear asserts that it would be hypocritical for Democrats, having denounced hostage-taking, to use the tactic themselves. But of course if Democrats refrain from using it, we'll live in a world where this is simply a tactic that comes out whenever we have a Democratic president and Republican control of the House (or even merely Republican control of 41 seats in the Senate.) Under that scenario, of course Republicans would block any attempt to eliminate debt ceiling hostage-taking. Why would they agree to eliminate something that provides them with leverage against democratic president s but is never used against their own?
It seems to me that, if Democrats want to eliminate this dangerous new tactic -- as they should -- they can neither unilaterally disarm nor simply ape the Republicans. The correct tactic would be to jack up the next Republican president, demanding policy concessions in return not for lifting the debt ceiling but abolishing it altogether.
Somebody please save this item and remind me of it the next time we have a Democratic House and a GOP president. The way the economy is bringing down Obama and the House Republicans insanity is bringing down themselves, this could be as soon as January 2013.