Debt Ceiling – Are We James Dean or Are We the “Other Guy?”

In the “Rebel Without a Cause” game of chicken, James Dean jumps.  The other guy’s jacket catches in the door and he plunges to his death (video below).  I think too many people are assuming we are James Dean…

A lot of people have also forgotten what happened the last time a “Grand Bargain” bill got to the House floor (under Boehner and Obama).  Boehner couldn’t corral the votes.  The bill (which read like a 1990’s Republican wish list) died an ugly death at the hands of a fractious Republican caucus.  Ask yourself –  Has the average Republican House member gotten more or less compromise-minded in the last 10 years?

I have no idea where the debt ceiling crazy train ends.  I do see a very narrow path for the widely assumed “moderate compromise” deal ever making it to the House floor for a vote much less passed.

Lets review the politics how we got here to maybe see where it ends.

  1. The Democrats could have just raised the debt ceiling in the Lame Duck session.  They didn’t – possibly fearing it would give Manchin leverage to re-negotiate the IRA.  But they didn’t…
  2. I think the (stupid) White House bet was “McCarthy will never get his herd of cats in line to even pass a bill, so we will slide into the deadline with “Republicans in disarray” headlines.  We win politically.  So lets plan for that…
  3. McCarthy actually got a bill passed.  Never mind that was only with this late night caveat (as reported at the time) “please just vote for this its a negotiating tactic it will never become law.
  4. That “compromise” bill has worked as designed.  McCarthy is now engaged in “serious” one on one talks with Biden.  Boosting his image and making the Republicans look competent.  The White house is now on the back foot every time McCarthy stands in front of a microphone and says “Biden isn’t being serious etc etc. “

A lot of people are following that political game and assuming it will end with the White House and McCarthy agreeing some sort of compromise and then that passing the House.

But McCarthy’s current “compromise” bill is too far right to get any Democratic votes or White House approval.  Yet it only got a Republican majority after assurances that it would never become law.

So when McCarthy comes back with a compromise that has moved left, what do you think his chances are for getting a straight majority vote?  It is possible.  But the House Republican caucus has a lot of people who treat the job as full time performance art – like WWE pro wrestling.  They are playing a character on TV.  “Compromise” isn’t in their story arc. 

What are McCarthy’s chances of getting Democratic votes?   That depends on the bill…  There are votes to be had – although there are also fewer Democrats who still quaintly believe their job is to govern.  But the more Democrats that sign on, the more “performative” Republicans will feel compelled to sign off.  Because “compromise” is a dirty word in MAGA politics these days. Compromise is something “weak” Democrats do.

The other dangerous assumption is that Democrats will (or can) keep us from going of the cliff.  Republicans are comforting themselves that (said with a slight sneer) “Biden’s brand is “compromise,” so of course he’ll give it up in the end…”  I think this misses how embattled the Democratic party has become over these years.  The embittered spouse tired of knuckling under “for the sake of the family.”   There are a lot more Democratic House members playing the pro wrestling game these days too…

So how does this all sum up?

  1. McCarthy is negotiating to negotiate.  Loving the present moment, but dreading the end game   Because “the guy who needed 14 votes to become Speaker” rightly  fears he can’t actually deliver…
  2. The White House has stuck itself.  Biden can’t walk away.  So he keeps negotiating.  Understanding that “negotiations” are the point here, not a “negotiated outcome.”
  3. We are watching the performance assuming it all gets tidied up in the end…

We are all partly complicit in how our politics has become pro wrestling.

The risk is that, when it comes time to wrap it all up and jump from the cars, we realize our jacket is caught.  Plunging over a cliff isn’t in James Dean’s story arc, but maybe we are “the other guy” in this script…




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