The first column on Justia’s Verdict was published on June 27, 2011. My spot in the rotation came up on July 7 of that year, meaning that my first Verdict column was published ten years and two days ago—as close to a ten-year anniversary as the schedule allows.
When my diligent research assistant noted that the ten-year mark was imminent, I went back and re-read my very first column: “The Debt-Limit Crisis: A Problem That Will Keep Coming Back Unless President Obama Takes a Constitutional Stand Now.” That column became one of the chapters in my 2013 book on the debt ceiling, The Debt Ceiling Disasters, the existence of which reflected how much the debt ceiling had driven policy debates in those years.
As recently as April of this year, I wrote yet another column about the debt ceiling, because there had been some minor rumbling in Republican circles about using the debt ceiling to try to extort concessions from Joe Biden should the Democrats lose one or both houses of Congress in the 2022 midterm elections.
In that sense, looking back ten years was very much a plus ça change moment. Even after a decade, my first Verdict column could become relevant yet again. But because I have written about that issue so recently, and because there have been no new developments (because of Republicans’ continued minority status in the Senate and the House), there is no need today to relitigate that issue yet again.
Instead, I want to take this moment of reflection to think more broadly about how the debt ceiling strategy used by Republicans starting in 2011 was a portent of a decade-long descent into ever-greater insanity by what used to be a mainstream political party. How did we reach the point where Republicans have all but abandoned even the pretense of being interested in governing, preferring instead to stoke cultural clashes and foment grievances that have spilled over into open political violence?
The Lack of Policy Content in the Republicans’ Focus on Fiscal Policy Under President Obama
At some point in the 1980s, some conservative activists decided to proclaim that the Republican Party was the Party of Ideas. This was always a combination of a branding exercise and a self-love fest on the part of conservative writers, but the label took hold among the credulous press. Conservatives have ideas, the thinking went, and those poor liberals have nothing but stale memories of FDR and LBJ!
By the turn of the millennium, whatever claims to deep policy analysis that the right might have claimed had all but collapsed under George W. Bush’s content-free “compassionate conservatism,” followed by militaristic fantasies and lies that led the country into disastrous long-term foreign quagmires.
After losing the presidency to Barack Obama in 2008, Republicans were temporarily on their heels, until they realized that they could stoke hatred among their base by intensifying dog-whistle racist attacks on Obama and, by extension, Democratic policies. But the big breakthrough was the coordinated AstroTurf attack machine that generated true outrage among white voters in response to what they insisted on calling Obamacare. The Tea Party was not originally a populist uprising, but conservative operatives certainly succeeded in retrofitting their creation into a tool of ground-level conservative activism.
Verdict came into existence less than six months after Republicans had taken over the House majority by riding the Tea Party wave of anti-government anger. That large group of 2010 House insurgents, along with the aggressive gerrymandering in which Republicans engaged after winning many state-level majorities, made it appear that the House would remain permanently in Republican hands.
The radical new House majority’s decision to seize upon the debt ceiling to use in political combat was the first indication that the Republican Party had truly changed. Although the number of newcomers was not enough to dominate the party, they were loud enough and aggressive enough to take a completely irresponsible stand and threaten to do serious damage.
There was no “party of ideas” moment that spat out the strategy of threatening not to increase the debt ceiling. Republicans had always opportunistically screamed about national debt and fiscal deficits, having spent decades pushing nonsensical and irresponsible ideas like amending the U.S. Constitution to require annual balanced budgets.
Anti-government absolutism and balanced-budget mania were not new ideas—and they were certainly not good ideas—but at least they were ideas. The debt ceiling, however, is an after-the-fact attempt to negate what Congress itself (partially or totally run by Republicans) had done in its annual budgeting process. “Let’s not increase the debt ceiling” was, as I wrote many times and at great length (often co-authoring with Verdict co-columnist Michael C. Dorf), not a way to reduce deficits but simply a way to hold the economy hostage to any set of demands that Republican radicals wanted to trot out.
This all seemed more than a bit odd, because the hostages in this case included the entire population of the United States (and ultimately the world), so the most that one could say about threatening to refuse to increase the debt ceiling was that it might not blow up in everyone’s faces, so long as one party or the other blinked first.
Again, however, there was no idea at the core of all of this grandstanding. Even when Republicans’ first go-round on the debt ceiling succeeded, with President Obama foolishly negotiating with the kidnappers (a mistake that, to his credit, he did not repeat in any of the subsequent hostage-takings), many of the Tea Partiers simply refused to accept yes for an answer. The closest thing that they had to an idea was to threaten harm to innocent Americans, but then to say: “I will never vote to increase the debt ceiling,” even after they had secured unwarranted concessions from the Democrats.
It was all about posturing, showing that they cared more about proving their anti-government, anti-debt purity than actually getting what they claimed to want.
Despite former House Speaker John Boehner’s recent attempts to distance himself from the people in his caucus whom he now calls “knuckleheads,” he not only adopted their strategy at the time but even tried to impose “the Boehner rule” on budget negotiations. That is, he invented out of whole cloth a bizarre decree that every one-dollar increase in the debt ceiling must be accompanied by a one-dollar decrease in spending, even though doing so would not prevent violation of the debt ceiling the following year, especially because he continued to push relentlessly for regressive tax cuts. And even if he wanted to impose such a rule, the place to do so would have been during the regular budgeting process, not in the midst of a completely invented political crisis caused by his own party’s blindness.
Boehner has of late been on a book tour, and he has said that he became discouraged to see how much the Tea Party wave had distorted his party. He is surely sincere about that, especially because those radicals soon deposed him and sent him into early retirement.
What Are the Debt Ceiling Warriors Doing Today? Ending Democracy
Nothing about what we now call Donald Trump’s base of voters is meaningfully different from the Tea Partiers who came dangerously close to destroying the economy and the Constitution in the early 2010s. It is only a matter of degree and shamelessness, with the debt ceiling debacles having been merely the pilot episode of the long-running series: “Republicans will do anything—anything—to seize and retain power.”
This is the party, after all, that soon realized that they could indulge in destructive tantrums after they lost elections, with Republican legislators passing lame-duck laws in North Carolina and then Wisconsin to take away their governors’ powers after Democrats won those states gubernatorial races.
But the biggest tantrum was yet to come, and Republicans not only sat by while Trump incited an attempted insurrection but now try to justify it, or at least ignore it. Now, we do not even have someone as minimally decent as Boehner, who was at least a realist. Current House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell are the party’s elite, and they insist on blocking investigations because they worry about the possible effects on next year’s elections. Again with that TV show: “Republicans will do anything—anything—to seize and retain power.”
Now, however, the Republicans have moved beyond tantrums, as dangerous and destructive as those have been. Starting approximately five years ago, an increasing number of my Verdict columns involved my saying, in essence, “Doesn’t anyone see how dangerous this is becoming?!”
It was no longer a matter of watching Republicans engage in dirty politics but seeing them try to end politics as we know it. Being sore losers was bad enough, but now they are setting up the rules so that they will never lose—and even when they seem to have lost, their new rules in key states will allow them to change those unwelcome results.
This is not to say that the New Crazy has completely replaced the Old Crazy. For example, The Washington Post reported yesterday: “Conservative groups mount opposition to increase in IRS budget, threatening White House infrastructure plan.” This is another idea-free Republican obsession, undermining the rule of law by cutting the IRS’s budget by more than 20 percent since 2014. Republicans did this out of spite, even as they imposed huge administrative burdens on the tax agency by passing their regressive 2017 tax bill (using the reconciliation process that they now profess to despise, by the way).
“If you fail to cut taxes for rich people as much as you want, make it easier for rich people to get away with tax evasion.” That is Old Crazy. “If you fail at cutting spending, hold the country hostage via the debt ceiling.” That was the beta version of New Crazy. “If you don’t want to lose elections, incite violence; and if that fails, change the rules entirely, democracy be damned.” That is where New Crazy is today.
That is quite a progression in only ten years. I do not claim to have seen all of this coming, but because I paid so much attention to beta-New Crazy in Verdict’s early years, it certainly is easy to see the through-lines to where this madness has taken us today.
Where will we be in another ten years? I hope still to be writing on Verdict (or whatever platform Verdict has become at that point), but much more importantly, I hope to be writing about policy disagreements and a clash of ideas in a functioning constitutional democracy. Frequent readers of my columns will not be surprised to learn that I am not optimistic.