There Are Limits to Hardball

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis, the election, and more, subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter.


House Republicans have apparently agreed to raise the debt ceiling for three months, and liberals are widely declaring victory. I’d advise caution on two grounds. First, we haven’t yet seen the actual proposal, so we don’t know if they’re offering a clean bill or one with obnoxious conditions. Second, is three months really that big a victory? Jaime Fuller Paul Waldman, echoing many others, writes:

There’s a lesson for the White House: Hardball works. Unlike in previous crises, President Obama didn’t try to make a bunch of pre-concessions in the hope that Republicans would moderate their position. He simply told them that the debt ceiling wasn’t up for negotiation. It just had to be raised, and that was all there was to it. And what do you know, he won. For three months at least. Then we get to do it all over again.

I don’t entirely disagree with this, and I’m certainly in favor of Obama adopting a more tough-minded negotiating posture. Still I’m not sure that “hardball works” is really the lesson to be learned here. I think the lesson is that hardball works if your opponents have a weak hand. In the case of the fiscal cliff, taxes were going to go up automatically if Republicans refused to make a deal. Their hand was disastrously weak. In the case of the debt ceiling, the business community told them in no uncertain terms that playing games with the full faith and credit of the United States government would be catastrophic. Republicans knew this was true, and they knew they’d be blamed for it. They had no way out.

In both cases, Obama could have blown it. He could have failed to recognize the strength of his own position and made preemptive compromises. It’s to his credit that he didn’t. Still, to say that hardball won these arguments misses a big piece of the story. Whether it works in the future will depend a lot on how weak the Republican position is. It’s not a cure-all.

DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

without free and fair elections, a vigorous free press, and engaged citizens to reclaim power from those who abuse it.

In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily crazy—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America will move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

without free and fair elections, a vigorous free press, and engaged citizens to reclaim power from those who abuse it.

In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily crazy—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America will move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate