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.

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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.”

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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. 

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