Why Are We Talking About the Debt Ceiling Crisis As If It’s Normal Politics?


I was noodling over Obama’s debt ceiling press conference during lunch, and the thing that struck me—again—was how hard it is to truly communicate his postion. And I sympathize. I’ve written about the basics of the debt ceiling hostage crisis at least a dozen times, and I still don’t feel like I’ve ever been able to get across just how radical the whole thing is.

Except for Newt Gingrich in 1995, no one has ever shut down the government as a threat to get something they want. And except for John Boehner in 2011, nobody has ever threatened to breach the debt ceiling as leverage to get something they want. That’s because it’s basically nuclear chicken, threatening to destroy the economy unless you get your way. It’s unthinkable.

And yet, it’s now become so institutionalized that Republicans can repeat over and over their mantra that “President Obama refuses to negotiate,” and eventually it starts to get some traction. Reporters who should know better write columns suggesting that Obama should try to bargain his way out of this. Conservative pundits complain not about the hostage taking itself, but about the fact that Republicans should be sure to choose the superior—i.e., most damaging— hostage-taking opportunity available. And Obama is forced to take the stage and try out an extended series of metaphors to explain exactly what’s going on. And then we all sit around and analyze his speech and nitpick his metaphors and game out how this might end.

It’s crazy. How do you get across how insurrectionary this is? Raising the debt ceiling isn’t a concession from Republicans that deserves a corresponding concession from Democrats. It’s the financial equivalent of a nuclear bomb: both sides will go up in smoke if it’s triggered. Ditto for the government shutdown. And ditto again for the piecemeal spending bills, which are basically a way for Republicans to fund only the parts of government they like but not anything else.

You can’t govern a country this way. You can’t allow a minority party to make relentless demands not through the political system, but by threatening Armageddon if they don’t get what they want. It’s not what the Constitution intended; it’s not something any president could countenance; and it’s reckless almost beyond imagining.

And most important of all, it’s not something that should get written about as if it’s just a modest escalation of normal political disagreements. It’s not normal. At all. But how do you get this across? How do you get across just how non-normal it is that we’re even talking about it?

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