Democrats Settled for a Raw Deal

Democrats Settled for a Raw Deal

Biden’s concession to the House Freedom Caucus on the debt ceiling is nothing to celebrate.


It’s still only May, but the deal-making enthusiasts in the DC commentariat are in high cotton: A tentative bipartisan accord has been reached on the encroaching federal debt ceiling, and the household gods of elite politics are restored to their traditional primacy. “Biden’s underrated deal-making prowess strikes again,” coos Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin. “Joe Biden is the master dealmaker America needs right now,” gargles The Daily Beast’s David Rothkopf. And so on.

It’s a long-standing malady of Beltway insiderism to mistake procedural finesse for substantive policy-making—and it’s especially egregious in the great unforced error of Democratic negotiations over the 2023 debt limit. There was every reason for party leaders to employ the lame-duck majority in last year’s Congress to pass a clean increase in the debt limit—or better yet, legislate the whole ungodly, and likely unconstitutional, debt ceiling away once and for all. Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer had assured the Biden White House that the votes were there for a boost in the debt limit—just as Congress had endorsed three breaches of it during the Trump years. Yet, when asked about such a prospect, President Joe Biden airily dismissed it as “irresponsible”—thereby making the pointlessly high-stakes negotiations over federal spending priorities with the reliably deranged House GOP caucus an inevitability.

Whatever you might choose to call the pending budget agreement, “responsible” would not figure into the resulting word cloud. The very structure of the thing forestalled any meaningful feint toward coherent and accountable governing; Republican Party strategists seized on this latest debt reckoning to force through a laundry list of donor-pleasing giveaways, from a yet more bloated Pentagon budget to a newly straitened Internal Revenue Service, and Biden and his negotiators rolled over on them. It’s testimony to the anemic character of the agreement that we’re now told to rally behind it because it could have been so much worse—a lobbying tactic that can be summed up in the schoolyard bully’s taunt “stop hitting yourself.”

In reality, the debt deal is reviving the dread specter of austerity in an economy that has lately performed well for many working Americans; a principled Democratic Party serious about basic matters of economic fairness shouldn’t be negotiating away things such as student debt relief and egalitarian environmental and tax policies. The administration that puts itself forward as the most worker-friendly White House since FDR’s is taking a disastrous turn into fiscal Mellonism. (If that sounds out of bounds and unfair, recall that Biden, as Barack Obama’s vice president, was the most influential player securing the rescue of the George W. Bush tax cuts during the last major debt ceiling showdown in 2011.)

“The hostage takers got what they wanted,” says Jeff Hauser, head of the executive branch watchdog group The Revolving Door Project. “There are more extreme hostage takers who wanted more, yes, but the House Freedom Caucus is not something that serious human beings should pay attention to…. And the administration has allowed the House Freedom Caucus to set the terms of this deal…. What I cannot believe people are not talking about is that we were in the exact same legislative posture four years ago: Democrats were coming off a much better election cycle that Republicans had in 2022, and had a much stronger majority.” Yet there was no bid to throttle the budget process to extract key agenda items from the opposition party—even though the Democrats also had the advantage of supporting an economic platform that’s broadly popular.

“It was preordained that Biden would lose when he took the constitutional option off the table, and refused to put taxes on the table,” says former Reagan Treasury official Bruce Bartlett. “The only way he could ‘win’ is with a clean debt limit increase, which was impossible. Why he didn’t raise the debt limit in December is a mystery.”

That was just the first political miscalculation here—as the pressure built for a debt agreement, the White House reckoned that House Speaker Kevin McCarthy would not be able to get his restive anti-government rank-and-file members to strike a framework for a spending deal in the first place. When the House narrowly endorsed a spending bill, the administration was largely caught flat-footed.

“They underestimated McCarthy; they didn’t think he could get a budget deal through the House,” Hauser says. “And they did not have a plan B when he pulled one together. Some people are arguing this was the deal Biden wanted all along; they’re inclined to think there might have been a Machiavellian desire to make these cuts happen. But of course this White House would want much more in terms of higher taxes on the rich and more funding for the IRS. I don’t think they’re capable of that level of sophistication. I think that [Chief of Staff] Jeff Zients, [Legislative Affairs Director] Louisa Terrell, and [White House Counsel] Steve Richetti are bad at their jobs…. They lost. They made a gamble on McCarthy’s incompetence, which on its face didn’t sound entirely ridiculous, but they set expectations so low that it’s possible for McCarthy not to be brilliant, but to be smarter than they gave him credit for.”

Then there was the timorous posture of a Biden White House that all but ruled out invoking the public debt clause of the 14th Amendment prior to the onset of serious disagreements about how to address the debt. “I suspect when this is over, Merrick Garland will be the bad guy,” Bartlett says. “I assume he gave Biden the dreadful advice that the constitutional option would have to be litigated all the way to the Supreme Court before it could be implemented.… If Abe Lincoln had followed Garland’s advice, he would have never suspended habeas corpus or issued the Emancipation Proclamation. At a minimum, Biden looks weak and he will have to go through this again in two years,” when the present suspension of the debt ceiling expires.

Meanwhile, the standard selling point for such dismal accords—that they’re a triumph of golden-mean bipartisan strategy—simply doesn’t hold water for a procedural maneuver that was always conceived as a glorified act of extortion. In this context, the feckless rhetoric of bipartisanship is a right-wing asset. “I think there’s a permanent desire among Democratic leadership and senior Democratic operatives that the smart play is always Ali-Foreman,” Hauser observes. “Let the other side punch themselves out; the far right will always fall to their own excesses. It’s always going to seem less risky and more wise to let the extreme opposition play itself out. But there are serious limits to such a passive strategy, and that’s what’s so painful about this. You know, if Democrats are not angry, the mainstream media is not going to do the work of being angry at the GOP for them.”

Bartlett concurs.”I have a theory that Biden thinks the 2011 budget deal was a great success for Obama because it was a bipartisan deal,” he says. “As you know, Biden’s political advisers are always pushing him to be bipartisan. If it works, fine. But I am dubious. I also think Biden is fundamentally more conservative than Democrats think he is. FDR he ain’t.”

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