Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Have the Republicans Trapped Themselves?

A very good rule of thumb for negotiations is that when someone makes a proposal they would normally avoid making, they see their own position as weak.

My last two posts took a critical and then an optimistic look at the maximalist approach taken by Republicans.  Since then we've had some more days of discussions and some interesting gambits by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell that make me suspect that the more negative post was also the more accurate.

The final point on my list of problems with a maximalist approach is that it can kill good deals.  That seems to be where Republicans are now.  Obama and the Democrats offered them a package that includes some tax increases but much larger cuts in spending.  It's a deal that most people would regard as a victory for the Republican leadership (although Obama would likely claim some credit for putting the deal together) and that accomplishes far more for their agenda than it gives up.

The snag is that GOP leadership has said, loudly and often, that absolutely no tax increases would be acceptable.  This pledge bears special political weight in a party that still remembers what happened to the first President Bush when he made a deal with Democrats that included new taxes and reneged on his "Read my lips" pledge.

Another reason Republicans are reluctant to compromise, even for a deal that seems much in their favor, is that their base doesn't want them to.  Consider this party divide from a recent Economist/YouGov poll:

(That poll indicates another problem with the debt ceiling negotiations: while 56% of Americans surveyed think defaulting on our debt would be "very serious" and 21% "somewhat serious" with 16% "unsure" it remains the case that 45% of respondents (and 74% of Republican respondents) think Congress should not raise the ceiling with only 29% (9% of Republicans) in favor of raising it.  We seem aware that the consequences could be dire, but we still oppose preventing them.)

Obama's approach to the negotiation has been interesting.  He recaptured a degree of initiative by suggesting a larger deficit reduction package of $4 trillion.  This shifted him from responding to Republican demands for fiscal responsibility to having more of a co-leadership position but it also created the bind on the GOP discussed above.  Having been offered a generous deal by Democrats that cuts government spending by far more than it increases taxes, how does the GOP look to independent voters (the ones that decide elections)?  I think it's summed up by a friend of mine who said, "Independent voters (myself included) can easily see this was a great deal for Republicans.  If they can't take it, then I really have no use for people more concerned with their pride than results."

In that environment, Mitch McConnell has made two gambits.  The first is to ask that Obama take his $4 trillion proposal from the private negotiation table and make it public.  This is a fairly shrewd gambit because as Obama has stated himself his package includes things that are painful for all parties.  Such a proposal can potentially be agreed upon by the leadership of both parties and then accepted by rank-and-file members, but they fare poorly if exposed to death by a thousand cuts.  If Obama puts his specifics in public view his plan will be attacked by the left for spending cuts and by the right for tax increases and Republicans will be able to walk away from it without political cost.

That said, Obama has already called his proposal one that involves political sacrifice for all sides and invoked Bob Dole's comment that the political boat doesn't sink if everyone gets in at the same time.  It should be fairly easy for Obama to handle this gambit.

By far the more interesting gambit is McConnell's proposal to shift responsibility for increasing the debt ceiling from Congress to the White House.  Specifically, he's proposed that the President be able to increase the debt ceiling almost unilaterally (Congress would need a two-thirds majority to prevent the increase) provided he offer a plan for reducing spending by a greater amount.

There are some clear positives for Republicans in this proposal.  Increasing the debt ceiling is unpopular among Americans (in part because many assume it reflects new spending rather than paying existing commitments) and this proposal would allow Republicans to vote "no" every time the Obama administration needs to do so.  Presumably some Democrats would be forced to vote "yes" so from the perspective of political theatre there's an obvious appeal to Republican candidates being able to say, "I voted against the Obama debt ceiling increases" or "My Democratic opponent voted for them".  McConnell has added to the theater value by requiring Obama to make three separate requests for the $2.4 trillion that will be required between now and the next Presidential election.

That doesn't change the fact that this is an awful proposal for Congressional Republicans.  You don't generally avoid blame for something you're responsible for by visibly punting that responsibility to someone else.  Instead of taking a package of large spending cuts, McConnell's gambit would let the debt ceiling rise with no spending cuts whatsoever.  (Granted, future cuts aren't binding on future congresses, but a Presidential proposal is even less so.)  Having used the debt ceiling as a weapon to compel policy concessions from Democrats, McConnell's plan would give that weapon up entirely.

It's also a proposal that should be fairly easy for Democrats to neutralize (if they want to) without much political cost.  Obama, Reid and Pelosi can argue that this is a political stunt designed to free Republicans  from having to govern, and Reid and Pelosi in particular can argue that giving up such a significant component of Congress's power of the purse is antithetical to the separation of powers that are a foundation of our system of government.

It seems pretty clear that Republicans would not have proposed this if they were happy with their current situation.  The question is, what follows?  The trap Republicans have created for themselves (assuming my analysis is correct) is still one that makes reaching any sort of agreement difficult but they have also signaled a willingness to swerve rather than take the country into potential default.  There must be some temptation on the Democratic side to stick to their current "bottom line" but the longer each party digs in the greater the chance that negotiations break down altogether.  I still think that's unlikely, but by no means impossible.


  1. Not entirely on point with the negotiation thoughts, but this looks essentially like the Republicans are saying "OK, Obama/Democrats: we'll let you do what you think is best for the country but then you have to be accountable to the public for it." While the GOP might get some attack ads out of it, depending on the specifics, it's pretty much the situation the Democrats should want to be in anyway, no?

  2. In theory, but in terms of practical politics maybe not. Right now the majority of Americans don't want the debt ceiling increased but also don't want the consequences of failing to increase it. We want large spending cuts right up to the point where actual programs are going to be cut. We want tax cuts and deficit reduction with "savings" from somewhere that doesn't hurt. In that environment it's likely that one party doing something big would put the other party in power.

  3. I just don't see that the Republican approach of "do what you want and let it be on your head" is likely to give them any significant political capital. On the one side, they're seen as giving up the principled stand they have been pretending to stick to all this time; on the other side, their political opponents now have a chance to tailor the increased debt ceiling and spending cuts in the least harmful (to their political posture) possible, and the GOP has said "We'll put up a pro forma fight that we know we can't win, but we won't really object."

  4. Dan, that's not quite right because the McConnell proposal requires that the President propose spending cuts, specifically, even if he thinks the best way to reduce the deficit would be revenue increases.

    I sort of like the idea that the President gives a big speech and says, we really should increase taxes on the wealthy, but since I'm required to propose a package of spending cuts instead I'm going to zero out the budget for Congressional staff, and eliminate Social Security checks for anyone whose last name begins with B or M, and shut down the Interstate highway system on alternate Thursdays. Too frivolous for our actual leaders, but amusing to think about.

  5. My one quibble with this article would be attributing the position to "Republicans". It's specifically McConnell's position, and I doubt the House Republicans (who have much more influence, because they actually control their body) are much impressed with it. Partly because of McConnell's weaker position, partly because of the nature of the Senate, he's much more likely to align himself with conservative factions like the Chamber of Commerce, who don't really care about reducing spending (much of which could come out of corporate welfare) and certainly don't want to play brinksmanship over the issue, than with factions like the Tea Party.

  6. Fair point, David. I doubt McConnell floated that without consulting with Boehner and others, but I should be more careful about lumping in different actors, especially when they don't have a fully-shared agenda.

  7. You could discuss the question of whether President Obama has an advantage because he is a unitary actor negotiating against a somewhat fragmented coalition. Arguably, in our system this is one of the big advantages of the Presidency, and a reason the executive often wins in negotiations even though the legislative branch would seem to have more power.