Friday, October 11, 2013

Democrats still shouldn't budge

Again and again, the Republican Party has attempted to persuade Harry Reid and President Obama to give up something for nothing.  Cruz was laughed off stage.  Boehner got nowhere.  Now, it's Paul Ryan's turn to convince the Democrats that this hostage situation is not one.

The usual suspects on the right are, as always, impressed by Ryan's policy prentensions.  But beneath a thin veneer of wonkspeak, he's just selling the same crappy bargain as everyone else.  No one left of center is fooled, least of all Jonathan Chait:
Ryan has certainly ratcheted back his most audacious demands. He does not propose destroying Obamacare and does not propose the deep cuts targeting programs for the poorest Americans that are the most noxious feature of his budget. (“This isn't a grand bargain,” he writes. “For that, we need a complete rethinking of government's approach to helping the most vulnerable, and a complete rethinking of government's approach to health care.”) While smaller in ambition, his current plan is equally one-sided. 
Ryan is offering to use the cuts that Obama put forward in his compromise budget from last spring. But that budget was explicitly made as a middle-ground offer, and the cuts were contingent upon Republicans agreeing to reduce tax deductions along with them. Ryan isn’t offering any revenue. He’s offering to pocket the concessions, full stop.
The shutdown is already a farce, but the right keeps taking it up a notch.  As the standoff continues, the impression created is increasingly one of dire mismatch in the two sides' comprehension of the fight, roughly analogous to, for example, an M1 tank falling through a hole in time and landing in King Arthur's court.  Against this interloper the lords and ladies are currently summoning a series of self-professed mystics, warlocks, and wizards, each inspiring greater awe from the faithful than the last, but to the educated eyes of our wayward crew, each more clownish than before.  And every challenger is no easier or more difficult to dispatch than the previous.  Before us now comes Ryan the Mighty, Wielder of Graphs, Prime Wonk, glory to his house! A man who is no way a charlatan enamored of his own abilities, relying on deceptions that are completely transparent to the minimally enlightened.

In response to the GOP's succession of magical champions, the best option the Democrats have is education through repetition.  Ryan's budgeteering should get no more reaction and no more favor than Cruz's ranting or Boehner's grousing.  The players might change but the deal should remain the same: reopening the government is okay, and so is a clean CR, but further negotiations will not begin until these things occur.  Calling negotiations "a bargain on entitlements and sequestration" makes no difference; whatever you call it, Ryan's offer should be treated as if it were no more persuasive than Cruz's demand that Obamacare be scrubbed from existence--because it isn't, and for the same reasons.

That doesn't mean rejecting everything Republicans put forward.  While maintaining their conviction not to negotiate, Democrats should support any GOP effort to fund the government or extend the debt ceiling without condition--even for a short span of time.  Thus far the Democrats have seemed reluctant to do this, rightly fearing that their opponents are only seeking to set up a similar crisis in the immediate future, in order to make further demands.  But so what if they are?  It should already be established--and should be continually established, with the collapse of each successive offer to reduce the ransom price--that no demands will be honored.  Future demands included.  If Republicans want to repeatedly subject America to fiscal crisis so they can go on television and make pointless, hopeless, deeply unpopular ultimatums, Democrats can't stop them.  But they can ensure that these episodes serve only as pieces of national theater, and in doing so force Republicans to weight their political cost against their gain, which is nothing.

This approach also has the advantage of being a good deal easier to explain than the current negotiating posture, which seems to be something along the lines of "We won't negotiate unless you stop taking hostages for a while."  At that point the debate naturally devolves to "What is a sufficient period of time to get you negotiating," which benefits no one.  The correct approach is, instead, "We're happy to let you release any hostages you feel like, but we won't ever give you anything for them," which forces the GOP to decide if all this is really worth it.

So if you're a Democratic congressional leader or President Obama and you're reading my blog, here's what you need to do.  Go on TV and lay down two simple rules.
  1. You will pass any unconditional extension of the debt ceiling or extension of government funding.
  2. During periods in which the threat of default is hanging over our heads, or the government is shut down, you will not negotiate on budget issues, Obamacare, or anything else.  
Even the pre-modern political thinkers of the GOP should be able to understand those conditions.  And then, just wait.  After they've exhausted every spell and sorcery in their arsenal, and you still haven't budged, and they realize just how foolish they've been looking, you might actually get some results.

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