Why Debt Ceiling Hardball Worked  

The House of Representatives just voted to raise the debt ceiling and allow the government to keep financing itself for several more months. To avoid the appearance of total capitulation, there are some fig leaves, here but basically they capitulated. Hardball by the Obama administration worked. Way back in January 2011, I predicted that the Obama administration could easily win that round of the debt-ceiling standoff by simply refusing to negotiate, and while the White House didn’t take my advice then, they executed the strategy brilliantly this month.

Some will say that the moral of the story is that hardball works. And to an extent that’s true. But it’s worth noting that this issue had some peculiar features.

As I wrote back then, the main feature of the debt ceiling issue is was that “key House Republicans such as Paul Ryan and John Boehner also favor raising the debt ceiling.” Once that fact is out in the open, the White House just has to say that given the existing agreement on raising the debt ceiling, the right thing to do is raise the debt ceiling. That’s a contrast from, say, raising the eligibility age for Medicare. It’s pretty clear that the Obama administration is willing to do this, but they don’t favor it. That’s when you negotiate. There may be other things that Republicans don’t favor but are willing to do that they could swap for the things Obama doesn’t favor but is willing to do. The debt ceiling, however, was like running into a room with a bomb strapped to your chest and threatening to blow it up. A potent threat in the hands of someone who’s genuinely suicidal, but House Republicans have never truly believed that slamming into the debt ceiling would be better than lifting it.

Hardball tactics may work for the White House on sequestration (where at least some Republicans very sincerely want to spare the Pentagon) but are probably much less effective in a basic appropriations fight. Many Republicans really don’t care much about the domestic discretionary functions of government and would be perfectly happy to see them put on hiatus for a week or two.