Standing on the outside, Washington looks something like the Western Front in World War I. Two deeply entrenched and bitterly divided sides, immune to each others’ small-arms fire and only bruised by direct hits from artillery. Democrats and Republicans, locked together in an awkward fiscal death dance by a bureaucratic Gordian knot, have found themselves in a type of brinksmanship in which the defense has the advantage, and as a result neither appears willing to move first.
Or, in other words, political firepower greatly overpowers political mobility. Each party has a fairly well defined position that they can not stray far from without being obliterated. No-man’s land is a natural product of trench warfare and as an observer, it’s almost reasonable that neither side would want to cross the divide.
But the United States is now stumbling through the second week of a partial government shutdown and is coming ever closer to exceeding its borrowing authority. The already embarrassing and economically damaging situation is only getting worse every day the impasse drags on, and eventually someone will have to lead the nation out of this mess.
That person should be President Barack Obama, but until recently, the president has been unwilling to negotiate with Republicans over the budget and debt ceiling standoff. At a glance, this may seem unreasonable given the enormous stakes involved, but President Obama and many in the Democratic party see a slightly different, if not larger picture than is portrayed by the fiscal impasse itself.
It’s important to point out that only now, ten days after Democrats and Republicans needed to reach a compromise on a spending bill, is the debate re-focusing on explicitly fiscal issues. Debates over how much money should go to what agencies are common — even expected — this time of year, and it was widely anticipated that the GOP would use either the budget or the debt ceiling as leverage to push for long-sought reductions to the nation’s gross spending problem.
If this was all there was to the story, we wouldn’t be here. What makes this situation different is that Republicans — at the insistence of an ultra-conservative faction within the party represented by people like Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) — want to defund or delay the Affordable Care Act as a condition of passing a budget or raising the debt ceiling. That is, they want to undermine the healthcare law that was the cornerstone of the Obama Administration.
This strategy is not necessarily unprecedented. Congress, apparently unable to pass a real budget, has been hopping from continuing resolution to continuing resolution for years, passing the fiscal hot potato from one wave of representatives to the next, and along the way a huge number of “dirty” funding bills have been passed. Brinksmanship is by no means a new tactic in Washington, and policymakers on both sides of the aisle have engaged in it in order to get what they want.
But trying to affect such massive change to the president’s flagship healthcare law was a strategy destined to fail from the beginning. The trick with brinksmanship is that whatever the opposition is trying to get in turn for passing a budget or raising the debt ceiling can’t be worth more to the majority party than a shutdown or default. The ACA is clearly worth more to the Obama administration than a shutdown — but what about a default?
The short answer to what could be a very long conversation is: no, the healthcare law is not worth more to anybody than a U.S. default on its financial obligations. But again, if that was all there was to this, we may not be here right now.
What is worth more to the Obama administration than a default is the pursuit of ending brinksmanship all together, eliminating the precedent that the opposition party can bring the nation to its knees in order to get its way, and trying to establish a political environment in which policymakers use the system — not game it — in order to affect change.
As President Obama told reporters last Friday: “I’m happy to have negotiations but we can’t do it with a gun held to the head of the American people.” That is, President Obama believes that the GOP has perverted the American political mechanism, and that if he simply cedes to their demands under these conditions there will be no turning back. Opposition parties from here on out will use the House’s power of the purse to affect legislative change, and that is not a way to run a country.