Bargaining on the Debt Ceiling Would Be an Irresponsible Mistake

Let’s not make a deal.

Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

The news that Barack Obama is going to meet with legislative leaders at the White House to discuss the shutdown and the debt ceiling has to be regarded with mixed feelings. The risk is that he’s somehow going to back off his principle of not getting sucked into a bargaining framework on the debt ceiling.

On this point it has to be understood that the narrow political interests of Obama personally diverge somewhat from those of the country. Michael Grunwald from Time was on Twitter earlier today pounding the message that ultimately a deal has to be made and Obama should be willing to pay some price in order to avert the disaster of a debt ceiling breach. That’s fine if Obama’s personal reputation is the only thing at stake. You really don’t want to be the guy who presided over an unprecedented catastrophe and might make some small or even midsize concession to Republicans to avoid it.

But from the standpoint of the country as a whole, a debt ceiling breach in 2013 is no more disastrous than a breach in 2017 or 2022. And the problem with “cutting a deal” with Republicans is that it essentially makes an eventual breach inevitable. If the hostage-taking gambit works, then it will be used over and over again until it goes wrong.

The only responsible thing for Obama to do is to struggle with all his might to take this gambit off the table now and forever. That could mean re-establishing the precedent that there is no bargain, the use of a platinum coin, the invocation of the 14th Amendment, or many other things. What it cannot mean is a swap where Boehner gets concessions and “in exchange” Boehner agrees not to push the country into a disastrous outcome. Depending on the precise terms of the deal, that might be an OK way to advance Obama’s narrow interests, but it’s a disaster for the country.