Silence is golden/But my eyes still see...Talkin' is cheap/People follow like sheep (The Four Seasons, 1964).
Six months prior to the 2011 debt-ceiling fight, I suggested the "silence is golden" strategy for managing that fight. The president did not adopt it at the time. From what is later understood, President Obama did not think Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) was so irresponsible that he would do to this economy what he actually did.
The president is clearly not making that judgment again. He has stated that he is not going to debate the debt ceiling with Congress.
To achieve his ends, the president's words and strategy and discipline will matter.
Words: The president should call the debt ceiling "non-negotiable." It is not a question of debating or not, it is "non-negotiable." No embellishment. No synonyms. "Non-negotiable."
The United States does not negotiate with hostage-takers abroad, we are certainly not going to do this at home. There is no reason to mince words, and many reasons to call it what it is.
The president should state clearly that he will veto any bill to raise the debt ceiling that contains any other elements. It must be a "clean" bill.
All administration officials, all Democrats in Congress, should use exactly the same script. No matter what question is asked, the debt ceiling is "non-negotiable," the United States does not negotiate with hostage-takers who will blow-up the entire U.S. economy" and the president will sign only a "clean" bill.
Strategy: As indicated in a prior article, it is baffling (to me, at least) why the president unilaterally took off the table his power (indeed, his obligation) under the 14th Amendment coupled with his oath of office not to default. The "debt-ceiling" is an artifice, not previously examined closely because there was never any need to do so. At the very least, the president should ask White House Counsel to prepare an opinion on this matter, and have the White House "leak" that this legal justification exists.
Although it may have been true in 2011 that invoking the 14th Amendment would spook the markets, it is far less likely today after the markets have had more than their share of right-wing economic brinksmanship.
The Senate should immediately pass a clean debt-ceiling extension and send it to the House. To scrub the law of much of its potential to be demagogued, the law should extend the "McConnell amendment" that cedes the debt-ceiling extension authority to the president subject to negation by a two-thirds majority of both Houses. Additionally, it should include language that the "authority so granted is limited to obligations approved or appropriated by Congress."
Together, these elements provide political inoculation. The "McConnell Amendment" is a Republican idea that has already been enacted once, and the other language can be referenced to indicate how the Senator has actually imposed limitations.
Finally, all members of Congress and every administration official engaged in negotiations on other matters, e.g. the sequester, should promptly walk out of any meeting, or hang up the phone, if the other side even raises the debt-ceiling as a part of that negotiation.
A year ago, I thought that the administration should "quietly" ask Republicans' friends on Wall Street to pressure them on the debt ceiling. In retrospect I believe that was wrong. Any suggestion that the administration is even remotely engaged in debt ceiling discussions would undermine the strategy.
Wall Street knows what it needs to do. Peter King (R-NY) has already made that suggestion with respect to Sandy Aid -- and compromising the full-faith-and-credit of the United States would be far more devastating even than that monster storm.
With a "clean" debt ceiling extension from the Senate, all eyes will again turn to the House. The fiscal cliff vote demonstrated that the mechanism of "letting the House work its will" avoids catastrophe.
Discipline: Republicans will, of course, try to deflect responsibility to the president, but the "we do not negotiate with hostage-takers" approach is sufficient answer. Any attempt at further elaboration just weakens the position, as one engages in "their" discussion.
For politicians of all stripes, silence is a very difficult discipline.
For debt ceiling strategy, however, silence is golden.