Yesterday morning, as I arrived to work at the Senate office where I’ve been working this summer, I spotted a colleague sitting at a nearby desk. The entire summer he’s sported a thick gray beard, but today his face was clean-shaven. When I asked him about the change he deadpanned, “My wife wanted me to shave so I . . . compromised.” Generally, compromise means each side gives a little, each side gets a little. For a wife demanding a haircut – and apparently for Democrats dealing with the debt – compromise seems to mean doing exactly what your told.
Today President Obama will sign a debt ceiling agreement that gives Republicans the extensive spending cuts they sought, and the Democrats nothing in return. The reason for this one-sided deal is simple: Republicans were far better negotiators; more specifically, they were far better at bluffing.
Democrats have argued throughout the debt ceiling debate that the GOP has been willing let the economy collapse to get what it wanted (severe spending cuts with no new revenues). It is this arrogant mentality – that we were the only ones smart enough to understand the ramifications of default, and the only ones patriotic enough to prevent it all costs – that ruined Democrats’ chance of prevailing in these negotiations.
I strongly disagree with Congressional Republicans on almost every policy, but I refuse to believe they don’t care about the welfare of our nation. Speaker Boehner – a man who loves America so much he bawls at the mere mention of soldiers, or children, or the American dream – knew the necessity of passing a deal, but he tried to convince us that Grover Norquist and Tea Party crazies prevented him from moving a single inch. He bluffed. It worked.
Democrats, on the other hand, refused to bluff, even with the best chip in the game: a provision in the Fourteenth Amendment stating, “The validity of the public debt of the United States . . . . shall not be questioned.” Some have argued that this provision authorized President Obama to unilaterally raise the debt ceiling. Does it? Constitutional scholars are split on the issue. But the political question doctrine would likely prevent a court from overruling his action. More importantly, a lack of standing would almost certainly prevent a suit from ever going to court in the first place. Republicans’ only options would be to impeach President Obama, and it seems politically unwise to impeach a president for doing something a court won’t say is illegal and that serves to save our economy from disaster. Even if they did, the Senate would never convict. President Obama could have unilaterally resolved the debt crisis with a simple Executive Order.
There are plenty of potential legitimate reasons he opted not to do so. Perhaps he thought it would seem dictatorial and be politically damaging, or maybe he opposed the expansion of executive authority. In the end, it’s irrelevant. The President didn’t actually need to take unilateral executive action, he just needed to act as though the option was on the table. He needed to bluff. If he had, and Republicans felt that their options were small gains through a fair compromise or nothing at all, we would have reached a far more balanced agreement than the one that will be signed today.