Having watched Capitol Hill fall into chaotic convulsions over the debt ceiling a million times before, I’ve come to the conclusion that the only way to properly negotiate your way through a debt ceiling crisis is to not negotiate at all. But it would seem, for the moment, that President Biden is going to dip a toe in those waters and fashion some sort of compromise. A deal may not be possible; it won’t take but a handful of House Republicans to scuttle any sort of bipartisan offering. So it may be too early to say that Biden is breaking his vow not to repeat the mistakes his former boss made in 2011.
But this might be a good occasion to point out the other big mistakes that have brought us to this point. Namely, those of the political media, who can rightly be said to have spent the last decade botching their coverage of the debt ceiling, mainly by failing to speak one plain truth: We keep getting dragged to the brink of default because the GOP has become a gang of extremists. This is villainy—their villainy—and the media has let them off the hook by treating this psychosis as all part of the natural order.
Over at New York, Jonathan Chait (not for the first time) runs down the most recent spate of examples that indicate we’ve already slid down a slippery slope: Here’s an unchallenged contention in The New York Times categorizing the debt ceiling standoff as “the ordinary stuff of politics”; there’s Jake Sherman blithely declaring that in “modern times, the debt ceiling is raised with negotiations.” (The American Prospect’s David Dayen has a deeper dive into Sherman’s particular brand of malpractice in this regard.) This is misinformation—or at the very least, it omits the most critical fact of all. As Chait writes: “These arguments conflate negotiation, which is historically common in debt-ceiling bills, with extortion, which isn’t.”
That the media cannot keep what is and what isn’t a “norm” straight in their head is the venial sin embedded within their debt ceiling coverage. The mortal sin is that the media has essentially conferred on the Republican Party the right to regularly stage these extortions. Imagine what would happen if the shoe was on the other foot—that a Democratic-controlled House majority was threatening to push the country into default unless a Republican president consented to a massive increase of the welfare state. It’s hard to imagine journalists referring to liberal hostage-taking as merely “the ordinary stuff of politics.”
This is another big lesson of the Obama era: The burden of bipartisanship, and the compromises that the media covets to a fetishistic extent, must be entirely shouldered by Democrats. (Marvel at the double standard: David Broder once made the insane insistence that the Obama-era Democrats needed to earn 70 Senate votes for any law they passed to be considered legitimate.) Throughout his tenure, Obama was regularly filleted for failing to reach a compromise with a Republican Party that had vowed to make him a one-term president by denying him a bipartisan win on anything. Pundits contorted themselves into pretzels in an attempt to ignore the fact that Obama and his fellow Democrats were the only party willing to stand in the ideological middle to make deals, a move that The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent referred to as “the centrist dodge.”
Obama spent an inordinate amount of time trying to play this game and please the naysayers. He allowed bipartisan “gangs” to build out their own health care reform ideas alongside the Affordable Care Act. He stumped for the votes of people like Olympia Snowe and Charles Grassley. He signed the Budget Control Act into law, unleashing the doomed “super committee” and the brutal sequestration budget cuts. And as soon as Obama was out of office, the moronic pundit drumbeat demanding more and bigger compromises fell silent. Donald Trump was never burdened by any such demands. The media’s bipartisanship fetishists essentially took four years off.
Now, with Biden back in office, we’ve returned to the Obama-era status quo where it’s up to him to make a series of painful choices in order to stave off economic collapse. There is never a demand that Republicans sacrifice anything, and you can see this in the coverage: You are probably aware that the White House is mulling across-the-board cuts to social spending and adding new and onerous work requirements to various aid programs. What are Republicans offering in return? As Politico reported on Wednesday, “House Republicans maintain that their job is done. They passed a bill. And now they are waiting for Biden to make a move toward agreeing to the spending restrictions outlined in their bill.” This reporting is included, without critique, in an article that repeatedly insists that “negotiations” are ongoing.
The Beltway media consensus conceives of the GOP as the party that’s allowed to exert maximal power to govern, while the Democrats are forced into the role of helpmate, permitted to step up occasionally to buffer the GOP’s excesses but not to exert maximal power themselves to advance their agenda. Any ambitious bit of liberal governance is usually confronted in the Beltway press with the question, “But how will you pay for it?” We may have become inured to this, but it is journalistic malpractice all the same. How have we paid for it? Quite dearly.
This article first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.