During the Obama era, GOP resistance to the Affordable Care Act (among other things) ran so hot and fevered that Republicans staged high-stakes hostage negotiations that threatened basic government functions and our ability to maintain our sovereign credit. Now, with Donald Trump in the White House and the Democratic base turned out in the streets in protest, a question arises: Should congressional Democrats indulge in similar recklessness?
No, they should not! But someone is going to have to remind Sen. Chris Coons of this, because in a recent interview, the Delaware Democrat seemed to suggest that he’d be comfortable pursuing a path of resistance that he once accurately decried as destructive.
I guess that someone is me, so best of luck to us all.
So, let’s start with the basics. Every so often, members of Congress go through this performative ritual where they acknowledge the expense of their legislative activity and affirm their willingness to make good on these obligations, so that we, as a nation, do not default on our credit. This ritual is called “raising the debt ceiling.”
And that’s too bad, because for many, “raising the debt ceiling” sounds like Congress is actively voting to take on new debt, instead of simply honoring existing debt. In fact, the past is filled with examples of congresspersons demagoguing the issue in this fashion, knowing full well that they are being disingenuous. Who could forget when then-Sen. Barack Obama gave a dumb and insincere speech about the debt ceiling in 2006? (Besides Barack Obama, I mean.)
In fairness, Obama was then operating in a more innocent era, when the periodic debt ceiling vote was understood to be a chance for the opposition party to do a little grandstanding about the president’s priorities ― safe in the knowledge that any votes against raising the ceiling would end up being purely symbolic, and that the measure would pass. This was all just sound and fury, and everyone knew the score.
But during Obama’s presidential tenure, debt ceiling grandstanding morphed into something less symbolic and more genuinely destructive. Ironically, Obama himself had a hand in this ― in 2011, he used the occasion of the debt ceiling vote as an invitation to bargain over long-term budgeting. Republicans were more than willing to seize the moment, and so we ended up in a new era where threatening the United States’ credit to try to overcome Obama’s veto power became normalized. And with that came more wild-eyed notions ― like the idea that failing to raise the debt ceiling wouldn’t hurt the economy. Or that if it did hurt the economy, it would actually be a good thing!
It was a pretty scary time to live through. And one of the loudest voices arguing against the insanity was Chris Coons, who continually denounced the whole idea of debt ceiling brinkmanship. In May of 2011, he penned an op-ed for The Hill titled “Debt-ceiling debate is not a game”:
Some call it a game of chicken. Some liken it to a game of Russian roulette. Whatever you call it, the potential for failing to raise our nation’s debt limit during this fledgling economic recovery should not be treated like the positioning of a political chess piece.
The question of whether to raise the debt ceiling is not a game.
See? Not a game, folks. As Coons went on to note:
When Standard & Poor’s took the unprecedented step of assigning the United States its first negative outlook in the nation’s rating history last month, it sent a ripple through the global market.
The next step — a reduction in our nation’s AAA bond rating — would send the dollar into a tailspin and stunt our economic recovery, undoing the real progress made over the last three years and shaking recent growth in critical market sectors. Our interest rates would soar, which would siphon more money out of our annual budget to pay the higher cost of borrowing. It would take years to rebuild the confidence of investors that we’d lose in the process, and might take generations to finally bring this crisis to an end.
In other words, this is one of those things that simply should not be messed with.
So you can imagine my surprise when Coons, during an interview with MSNBC’s Katy Tur on Wednesday night, abruptly took leave of his senses and started arguing that maybe Democrats should consider a round of debt ceiling brinkmanship to get to the bottom of l’affaire Michael Flynn.
During the interview, Tur pointed out that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had pooh-poohed the idea of an independent investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s communications with Russian officials. “How far should Democrats go to force this issue?” Tur asked.
Coons began by pointing out that the Senate Intelligence Committee is, in fact, “already underway” in taking up the matter. Indeed, as The Huffington Post has reported, it’s likely that several prominent Senate Republicans, including various committee chairs, are taking the matter very seriously. All well and good so far! But Tur, noting that such investigations could end up getting squelched, asked Coons if his minority party was prepared to “go nuclear on this.”
TUR: It seems that all the Democrats can do right now is talk loudly about this. If it does come to the point where the Republicans are not going to get on board with an investigation that does lead to the full answers, are the Democrats willing to do things like block Neil Gorsuch’s vote, or with the debt limit expiring next month, essentially hold it up in order to get the Republicans to take this more seriously if it comes to the point where they are not?
COONS: Yes Katy, there is a range of things that we could do, but I don’t think that we should get there yet.
OK, man, but surely you are going to take the debt ceiling off the table, right? Right?
COONS: You just laid out a number of leverage points that might be able to get the attention of Republicans in the Senate.
TUR: So, they’re ones that you could potentially use, if you need to.
No! Chris Coons, you had this right the first time.
Obviously, Coons isn’t committing anyone to debt ceiling brinkmanship. But for him not to rule it out is alarming ― and it suggests he doesn’t understand the lingering effects these stunts have had on the Republicans who previously attempted them.
The GOP didn’t advance any of its policy goals when it was flirting with default. But it did earn a ton of temporary public enmity ― comparable to the backlash after the 2013 government shutdown.
And over the long run, the Republicans’ debt ceiling shenanigans helped fuel a deep dysfunction that has done the GOP, and the country, no end of harm. A substantial part of their base came to believe that these kinds of nail-biting showdowns were necessary, and they began demanding them. A not-insignificant faction of the GOP caucus emerged to demonstrate fealty to this cause. And Republican leaders had to deal with the aftermath of what these unrealistic expectations ― and their accompanying apocalyptic tenor ― bred in their governing body: a paralyzing inflexibility that has kneecapped their ability to govern.
Even with one of their own in the White House, you can see Republicans struggling with the fallout of these choices to this day. Their inability to come to a decision on how to repeal the Affordable Care Act is a great example.
It’s clever to think that you can use a debt ceiling confrontation to break the will of a party unwilling to grant concessions. Someone like Coons might even be able to weather the obvious hypocrisy of telling the world he’s open to using the debt ceiling as a poker chip, after decrying such behavior when the political landscape was different. But actually following through with that tough talk would pave the way for ever-greater dysfunction. What’s more, using the levers of power to threaten to unleash economic destruction is a really bad look for Democrats, who are supposed to be the party that believes an effective government can help solve big problems.
Additionally, you have to think about who would really be hurt if the debt ceiling were breached, causing massive job losses and a tidal wave of economic turmoil. Here’s a hint: It’s pretty much everyone, including the people whose votes Democrats desperately need to court. When you take the debt ceiling hostage, you’re putting the lives of millions of ordinary people at risk. That’s not just dumb; it’s despicable.
Finally, there’s one thorny little matter that shouldn’t go overlooked: Literally nobody in the world will take the Democrats seriously if they suggest they’ll try to pull this stunt. It’s a 100 percent idle threat. If Democrats are really serious about the need to investigate Michael Flynn, they shouldn’t do things that are, intrinsically, unserious.
Remember that scene in “The Dark Knight” when the Joker is talking to a room full of crime bosses and he opens his jacket to reveal, like, a million hand grenades? Yeah, that was cool, but it’s not actually a good way to run a country. Democrats are not in a position right now where they can afford legitimacy crises, or afford to make promises to their base that they can’t deliver on. Threatening to use the debt ceiling as a leverage point won’t turn out well for anyone. So let’s nip this in the effing bud.
UPDATE, 6:40pm: Coons’ office responds like so:
Senator Coons does not believe that using the debt ceiling deadline is a reasonable option for forcing Republicans to investigate the Trump Administration’s ties to Russia. During the interview you referenced, he said that he was optimistic that the investigation underway in the Intelligence Committee was moving forward properly, and that he thought a number of options could get the Republicans attention. An honest reading of his comments is clear that he is not endorsing use of the debt ceiling deadline as a forcing mechanism.
Bud nipped, you’re welcome.
Jason Linkins edits “Eat the Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost Politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.