The GOP’s Debt-Limit Brinkmanship Is Officially Dead

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Feb. 11 2014 7:47 PM

Debt-Limit Brinkmanship Is Dead

The GOP hatched this high-stakes strategy in the spring of 2011, but today is the day it officially died.

(Continued from Page 1)

It’s difficult to count how many times this was said. Sometimes, Boehner promised a “whale of a fight” when the debt limit came up. Sometimes he invoked the “Boehner rule,” and said any debt limit increase, naturally, would be paired with spending cuts equal to the new, borrowed money. (This became a “rule” despite never actually happening.) In February 2011, Boehner pushed through a temporary delay of the debt limit on the promise that the GOP would have more leverage in the fall. When fall came, the “Boehner rule” was revised—now, any sort of reforms, no matter what the cost, would be good enough for a debt limit increase.

None of this ever worked, and Republicans argue about the reasons why. One theory: The October 2013 government shutdown scared Republicans straight and convinced them that brinkmanship wasn’t worth it unless they had a clear plan for victory.

“It did change the environment when the American people rejected the shutdown,” Arizona Sen. John McCain said on Tuesday. “It was a disaster. People can say that it wasn’t, but it was. Don’t ask me. Look at the poll numbers.”


Another theory is that the stakes for Republicans, if they voted to raise the debt limit, were never as high as they thought. Only six House Republicans lost primaries in 2012. All but three of them—Florida Rep. Cliff Stearns, Oklahoma Rep. John Sullivan, and Ohio Rep. Jean Schmidt—were victims of redistricted maps that forced them into primaries against their colleagues. After 2012, ensconced in their safe seats, few Republicans feared being primaried for a debt limit vote.

There’s an alternative theory, one that Republicans never bring up. The deficit, the driver of the debt limit crisis, has shrunk steadily since 2011. A week before Tuesday’s debt limit vote, in the CBO report that Republicans were largely using to attack the health care law, the deficit was projected to shrink to $514 billion, or half of what it had been when the Tea Party won the 2010 midterms.

This has brought us back to the norm—the Era of Concern Trolling (1917–2010, 2014–present). Republicans aren’t happy about this and rejected the idea that this week’s surrender meant that no big policies could ever be leveraged in by a debt limit vote. Ohio Sen. Rob Portman and Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake argued that crises, and only crises, forced action on spending.

But there’ll be no crisis this year. “If the position of the Democratic Party is that we’re going to borrow money forever without addressing why we’re in debt, I hope that becomes an issue in 2014,” said Graham. “Politically, they’re misjudging where the American people are.” He headed off to the GOP’s weekly luncheon, saying he’d vote against the “clean” debt limit bill.

A few hours later, it passed the House.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 



Scalia’s Liberal Streak

The conservative justice’s most brilliant—and surprisingly progressive—moments on the bench.

Colorado Is Ground Zero for the Fight Over Female Voters

There’s a Way to Keep Ex-Cons Out of Prison That Pays for Itself. Why Don’t More States Use It?

The NFL Explains How It Sees “the Role of the Female”

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B


Theo’s Joint and Vanessa’s Whiskey

No sitcom did the “Very Special Episode” as well as The Cosby Show.


The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

Cliff Huxtable Explains the World: Five Lessons From TV’s Greatest Dad

Why Television Needs a New Cosby Show Right Now

  News & Politics
Sept. 18 2014 8:20 PM A Clever Attempt at Explaining Away a Vote Against the Farm Bill
Sept. 18 2014 6:02 PM A Chinese Company Just Announced the Biggest IPO in U.S. History
Sept. 18 2014 3:24 PM Symantec Removes Its “Sexual Orientation” Filter
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 18 2014 3:30 PM How Crisis Pregnancy Centers Trick Women
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 18 2014 1:23 PM “It’s Not Every Day That You Can Beat the World Champion” An exclusive interview with chess grandmaster Fabiano Caruana.
Brow Beat
Sept. 18 2014 3:04 PM Pogo Returns With Another Utterly Catchy Disney Remix
Future Tense
Sept. 18 2014 6:48 PM By 2100 the World's Population Could Be 11 Billion
  Health & Science
Sept. 18 2014 3:35 PM Do People Still Die of Rabies? And how do you know if an animal is rabid?
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.