Why Obama and the Republicans will reach an agreement on the debt ceiling.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
May 16 2011 6:51 AM

We've Seen This Movie Before

The fight over the debt limit is following a familiar Washington script.

President Barack Obama meets with bipartisan leadership on fiscal policy. Click image to expand.
President Obama meets with House and Senate leaders in April

Allow me to go out on a limb here and predict that President Obama and Republican leaders will agree to raise the debt ceiling, averting an economic crisis. This prediction is based in part on reports I am hearing of tentative progress: Administration sources say both sides are agreeing to cuts in spending in a cordial and serious process, and that the cuts are distributed among the constituents of both parties. If they continue making progress, they'll be able to win the votes from House Republicans and nervous Senate Democrats to pass a debt ceiling increase.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

But you don't need to know any of that to make this prediction. You simply need to recognize exactly where we are in the midst of a familiar storyline. The debt ceiling fight is just like the fight over funding to keep the government from shutting down, which was just like the fight over extending the Bush tax cuts, which was just like … well, you get the idea.

Washington has become a Saturday serial like the kind they showed at the cinema in the middle of the last century. Each episode ends with a cliffhanger in which the hero or heroine is placed in a situation of imminent peril, from which there is no possible escape. Viewers had to return the next week to see how the last cliffhanger was successfully resolved and be introduced to the next cliffhanger.

Here's a brief viewers' guide to the action so that you can anticipate what's going to happen next and comfort your little sister, who is easily scared:

It's All About Economic Fear. All sides agree that failing to reach a deal on tax cuts/ funding the government/raising the debt ceiling would severely affect the fragile recovery. Agreement on this fact foreshadows the happy ending because in the end no wants to get stuck with the blame for harming the economy.

No New Taxes. Republicans refuse to support any deal that includes a tax increase. The president met with Republican senators last week and said any significant deficit reduction required to raise the debt ceiling could not be reached without some kind of tax increase. A House leadership aide says that House Speaker John Boehner expects the president to cave on this position as he did on tax cuts for the wealthiest.

Hostage-Taking. Last year, the president famously said "Republicans [were] holding middle-class tax relief hostage because they're insisting we've got to give tax relief to millionaires and billionaires." During the shutdown fight that was Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer's claim. Last week White House spokesman Jay Carney took up the charge.

Enter the Vice President. To solve the situation, Joe Biden is called in to negotiate with leaders of both parties. The meetings are cordial. He appears afterward to offer his assessment of how well they went.

No Progress. News accounts say that no progress is being made. Pundits sound the alarm.

Progress. Meanwhile, negotiators are making progress. Pundits sound the alarm.

DemocraticFreakout. Democratic officials complain that the president isn't doing enough. He's selling them out in a final deal with Republicans. Democratic senators expressed this sentiment in a meeting with Obama and his aides last week.

Tea Party Freakout. Various Tea Party-affiliated activists claim that House GOP leaders are selling out. (This also happens with each sunrise.)

Uh-Oh, Daddy'sHome. Obama weighs in and tells both sides to stop playing politics in order to get a deal. If you want a good seat for this coming act, go to the White House briefing room: That's where he did it during the tax cut fight and government shutdown tussle.

We're All Doomed. News reports quote aides who say both sides have never been farther apart. A deal, if there ever was one, is crumbling.

Let's Make a Deal. Both sides believe doing nothing would harm the economy; they make a deal. That pressures the president because he'll get the large share of the blame if the economy slides. Republicans make a deal because they are boasting they're the adults in Washington, and shutting down the government or defaulting on its obligations doesn't suggest adult behavior.

Saturday serial hero Captain Marvel had a niftier suit than the boxy ones Washington politicians wear. But his ability to avert a crisis that looked certain to cause destruction was just as predictable. Of course, Captain Marvel faced outside forces of doom. In Washington, the politicians are just saving themselves from themselves.

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