One expects the debt-ceiling mess to involve a lot of ostentatious chest-pounding on both sides, for despite the fact that this is a deadly serious issue – the fact that we're even considering incurring an intentional catastrophe via a default is incredible, a testament to the bottomless stupidity inherent in our political climate – this whole debate is primarily an exercise in political posturing.
That Republicans are holding up what should be a routine, if unpleasant, decision to raise the debt ceiling in order to portray themselves as the uncompromising defenders of the budget-balancing faith (a howling idiocy in itself, given what went on during the Bush years) is obvious to most rational observers. It's the obvious play for the lame-duck party entering an election year, and they're playing it, with the requisite hysteria.
But what is becoming equally obvious, to both sides, is that the Obama White House is using this same artificial calamity to pitch its own increasingly rightward tilt to voters in advance of the 2012 elections.
It has been extremely interesting in the last weeks to see observers on both sides of the aisle make this point. Just yesterday, the inimitable New York Times conservative Ross Douthat listed Obama's not-so-secret rightward push as a the first in a list of reasons why the Republicans should dig in even more, instead of making a sensible deal:
Barack Obama wants a right-leaning deficit deal. For months, liberals have expressed frustration with the president’s deficit strategy. The White House made no effort to tie a debt ceiling vote to the extension of the Bush tax cuts last December. It pre-emptively conceded that any increase in the ceiling should be accompanied by spending cuts. And every time Republicans dug in their heels, the administration gave ground.
The not-so-secret secret is that the White House has given ground on purpose. Just as Republicans want to use the debt ceiling to make the president live with bigger spending cuts than he would otherwise support, Obama’s political team wants to use the leverage provided by those cra-a-a-zy Tea Partiers to make Democrats live with bigger spending cuts than they normally would support.
Douthat makes this observation, then argues that the Republicans should recognize Obama's hidden motive and hold out for an even better deal. It will then be a race to see which party can abandon employment in favor of deficit reduction faster. He writes:
Why? Because the more conservative-seeming the final deal, the better for the president’s re-election effort. In that environment, Republicans have every incentive to push and keep pushing. Since any deal they cut will be used as an election-year prop in 2012, they need to make sure the president actually earns his budget-cutting bona fides.
This is interesting because just last week, the liberal opposite of Douthat at the Times, Paul Krugman, came to the same conclusion:
It’s getting harder and harder to trust Mr. Obama’s motives in the budget fight, given the way his economic rhetoric has veered to the right. In fact, if all you did was listen to his speeches, you might conclude that he basically shares the G.O.P.’s diagnosis of what ails our economy and what should be done to fix it. And maybe that’s not a false impression; maybe it’s the simple truth.
One striking example of this rightward shift came in last weekend’s presidential address, in which Mr. Obama had this to say about the economics of the budget: “Government has to start living within its means, just like families do. We have to cut the spending we can’t afford so we can put the economy on sounder footing, and give our businesses the confidence they need to grow and create jobs.”
Krugman seems to believe that Obama has basically purged all of his real economic advisors and is doing what Bush did on foreign policy -- engaging in complex and portentous policy initiatives at the behest not of experts, but political advisors. Just as Bush had Karl Rove telling him when and how to launch military invasions and drop bombs on unsuspecting foreign human beings in order to establish electoral credentials, Obama might be playing chicken with the budget for the benefit of undecideds in Florida and Ohio:
Some of what we’re hearing is presumably coming from the political team, whose members seem to believe that a move toward Republican positions, reminiscent of former President Bill Clinton’s “triangulation” in the 1990s, is the key to Mr. Obama’s re-election. And Mr. Clinton did, indeed, rebound from a big defeat in the 1994 midterms to win big two years later. But some of us think that the rebound had less to do with his rhetorical move to the center than with the five million jobs the economy added over those two years — an achievement not likely to be repeated this time, especially not in the face of harsh spending cuts.
The blindness of the DLC-era "Third Way" Democratic Party continues to be an astounding thing. For more than a decade now they have been clinging to the idea that the path to electoral success is social liberalism plus laissez-faire economics – in other words, get Wall Street and corporate America to fund your campaigns, and get minorities, pro-choice and gay marriage activists (who will always frightened into loyalty by the Tea Party/Christian loonies on the other side) to march at your rallies and vote every November. They've abandoned the unions-and-jobs platform that was the party's anchor since Roosevelt, and the latest innovations all involve peeling back their own policy legacies from the 20th century. Obama's new plan, for instance, might involve slashing Medicare and Social Security under "pressure" from the Republicans.
I simply don't believe the Democrats would really be worse off with voters if they committed themselves to putting people back to work, policing Wall Street, throwing their weight behind a real public option in health care, making hedge fund managers pay the same tax rates as ordinary people, ending the pointless wars abroad, etc. That they won't do these things because they're afraid of public criticism, and "responding to pressure," is an increasingly transparent lie. This "Please, Br'er Fox, don't throw me into dat dere briar patch" deal isn't going to work for much longer. Just about everybody knows now that they want to go into that briar patch.