THE BLOG
10/08/2013 10:59 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Debtlock in D.C.: A Chance for Obama to Pass the Ball (Not the Buck)

As is becoming clear, this shutdown could go on a long time -- with disastrous consequences if it leads to a debt ceiling breach on October 17. One way to break the impasse: avoid status quo tactics and enlist a chief messenger who is not the president to pry skeptical voters away from the brink.

Why is the standoff so likely to drag right up to (and possibly past) the debt ceiling cliff?

The biggest challenge is that there is little personal incentive to drive the hardline members of the House GOP to the negotiating table. These members are better fortressed in safe districts than ever before, and their constituents -- who, as Cass Sunstein argues incisively, reside in a burgeoning intellectual echo chamber -- aren't exactly pushing for compromise.

These constituents mostly view the fight, in Sunstein's words, as a question of whether their representatives will "cave" to Obama or "stand up" for their principles. Absent a game-changer, they're not likely to favor any deal the Democrats would take. (And Democrats, who reckon that the shutdown will hurt the GOP as a whole, aren't eager to make major concessions anyway -- the president and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have made clear they're dead-set on a "clean" debt ceiling hike and continuing budget resolution, or "CR.")

Unless Speaker Boehner deliberately overrides a majority of his caucus -- breaking what in D.C. is called the "Hastert Rule"--these hardline members have a figurative veto on any traditionally middle-ground settlement. Such a betrayal from Boehner would almost certainly scuttle his speakership. Observers believe it's unlikely he'd do it.

As Max Bazerman, negotiation expert and co-director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School, puts it: "There's no simple solution: if we view this as simply 'Who's going to give in?', we're not too far away from Israel-Palestine in terms of too many mutually-exclusive claims having already been made," leaving no room for an actual deal.

(Ideally, as Bazerman notes, both sides would coalesce around a broad, complex "grand bargain" including a debt ceiling hike and budget resolution -- but time is short and the holdouts here are essentially the same group who helped axe that idea in July 2011, so that seems unlikely.)

Given that the status quo has brought us deadlock, status quo tactics -- meetings among party leaders, presidential pressers and speeches -- seem unlikely to break us free. They are especially unlikely to persuade the harder-line side of the GOP caucus, who feel honor-bound -- in some cases by their own principles and in some cases by their constituents' beliefs -- not to engage in the kind of deficit-enabling deal-making that would, under more traditional circumstances, pull us from the ledge.

The GOP reps in that first group -- the true believers -- are probably beyond persuasion. But that's OK: the GOP caucus is split on the issue, and the Democrats likely only need to peel off a few dozen extra House members to put Boehner on the right side of the Hastert Rule and get themselves a relatively clean debt ceiling hike and budget resolution. The second group -- the folks afraid of their constituents (and the primary challengers they might nominate) -- is where they should focus. And the path to winning over the second group may go through old-fashioned persuasion.

Unfortunately, those constituents are not necessarily constituents Obama can reach. His ability to command audiences has grown weaker, as have his approval ratings (particularly on healthcare, the central sticking point for the GOP hardliners, where he has the further hurdle that his opponents have managed to nickname the health care law itself after him). He needs to find a messenger who can win the attention of that second group of constituents -- the ones who are deeply skeptical of Obamacare, but not quite fire-breathing Tea Party anarchists -- and speak to them with enough credibility and persuasion to win room for their representatives to maneuver.

What kind of message -- and messenger -- could break through in such a polarized environment?

First and foremost, Obama should enlist a prominent, independent voice who commands good faith on both sides of the aisle -- not someone who would be seen as a crony. Ideally, it should be someone with no plans to run for anything anytime soon (and certainly not higher office in 2016). And this person must have a knack for communicating complex ideas engagingly, so that those who have been tuning out the president are still willing to listen and consider.

One obvious choice is President Clinton (he proved his abiding mettle at the 2012 Democratic Convention), but the man Obama once called "the Secretary of Explaining Stuff" is not the only candidate. Other, head-turning voices could include former Secretary of State Colin Powell, former Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe, or, as a dark horse, former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson, whose imagery never fails to engage. The voice arguing against the anarchy of a debt ceiling breach, after all, doesn't have to be a full-throated ACA supporter to be persuasive--it may be more effective if he or she isn't.

A successful speech would express a nuanced view of the ACA, creating room for people who have been skeptical of the law since 2010 to take a second look. It would point out that demand is higher and rates lower than expected without whitewashing the very serious bugs. It would have to be vivid on the dangers of a debt ceiling breach, while pointing out that the ACA is already being implemented anyway and encouraging skeptics to advocate within the system for incremental improvements. And it would emphasize that holding a gun to the head of US government (and the world economy) is a horrendously irresponsible way to negotiate about policy differences, and one that no voter should encourage, nor any president appease. It flies in the face of our entire constitutional governing structure.

The White House would have to help build a major platform for such an address, but also step back so that it enjoyed some independence. In this sense, the maneuver would be like giving the ACA (and a debt ceiling deal) its own high-profile surrogate, as both the '08 and '12 campaigns did so effectively for the president (remember Colin Powell and Sen. Ted Kennedy). Obama would still have an enormous role in the negotiations (he's still the president); he just wouldn't be reason's only leading voice.

(Likewise, none of this means that those on the left can't continue to hammer Boehner for obstructing a bill that appears to command a majority in the House. The Hastert Rule is not, after all, a real rule. But if you believe he's unlikely to break it all the same, you have to think about how else you might free him to bring a clean CR and debt hike to the floor.)

There would be some who would criticize this maneuver, calling it an abdication of leadership or embarrassment for the president -- as if leadership must always be on a white horse and as if American democracy doesn't already include a varied, three-branch constellation of political voices. Furthermore, the situation is quickly growing dire enough that "embarrassment for the president" shouldn't be disqualifying: a negotiated solution should, in theory, include a little embarrassment for everybody anyway.

This idea isn't perfect; it's always dodgy to sideline a star, especially when he's been your team's franchise player for the past decade. But even more imperfect is letting the set of irreconcilable demands that has brought us to this precipice run its course.

And even the best teams send their stars off the field in a few tight spots: they bring in pinch hitters for left-handed pitchers and backup quarterbacks for short yardage situations. The best players draw in the defense and then pass to a supporting teammate for an open shot.

Political parties -- and, in an ideal world, governments -- should function at least a little bit like teams. It's time for President Obama to look down the roster.