Please forgive me for what I’m about to do.
A few weeks ago a good friend of mine left Washington, D.C., where he’d been working as a lawyer for a few years, and returned to California, where he now practices. He’s surrounded by highly educated people. And yet he wrote me this week to boast, “You know what’s nice? Nobody is discussing the looming government shutdown. It’s just not on anybody’s radar.”
If he weren’t a news junky, it probably wouldn’t be on his either.
I normally can’t stand it when writers use their conversations with friends, waiters, clipboard people or whomever else to draw sweeping insights about big things like politics, America and the world. So apologies for going a little Tom Friedman on you. At least I didn’t invoke any of my cab drivers, none of whom ever seem to mention the debt limit.
Anyhow I bring this up because I do think it’s illustrative. And I think it speaks to a hidden danger for Republicans, who already know these antics are more politically damaging to them than they are to Democrats. A lot of people around the country, not just in coastal California, have no idea that the GOP is about to harm the economy all over again, like it did in 2011, against its leaders’ better judgment. But they’re about to find out.
The last time we went through the unpleasantness of government shutdown and default threats, the country was in a much different place. President Obama had just been gut punched by the electorate. The economy was much deeper in the toilet than it is now. Deficits were twice as high. Republicans had a very large majority.
The pendulum had to swing in the other direction. I think the country knew it. And though I don’t think anyone knew how far it would swing or what it would clobber along the way, it wasn’t a huge shock when it whacked into the debt limit. Congressional reporters actually saw that coming in 2010, after the Great Shellacking in November. Obama didn’t help matters by clouding what was really going on. He wanted a deal, he thought Republicans had a fair claim to demand budget cuts, and so he let the fact that he was a participant in the debate obscure its extortive terms.
The month of July 2011 was incredibly demoralizing for the country.
But when it was over I think a lot of people were relieved by the sense that nobody would be stupid enough to repeat the same play any time soon. A couple of years of economic growth, and Obama’s big reelection augmented that sense.
Nine months later, what reason would anyone not paying close attention have to believe that the country was on the verge of another high-wire act like that.
I don’t know of any metric or poll that gauges the intensity of public awareness of the issues Congress is debating. But I do know that the debt ceiling is conceptually elusive. It’s also deceptively named — the act of increasing it sounds like it entails incurring a bunch of new debt.
Combine that with the fact that there’s no political watershed or national emergency that would augur for another partisan confrontation like that, and I think it’s fair to assume that the country’s just psychologically unprepared for the fact that we’re on the cusp of it. Same goes for the government shutdown fight.
A Washington Post/ABC News poll this week showed that 73 percent of the country believes that “if the government cannot borrow more money to fund its operations and pay its debts” it would cause serious harm to the U.S. economy. That’s about the same as it was in early June 2011, two months before the debt limit had to be increased. We’re less than a month away now.
I have been and remain quite confident that you can ignore most of the Sturm und Drang. I believe Congress will fund the government and increase the debt limit in a fairly predictable way. As the liberal writer Rich Yeselson wrote to me the other day, “There’s a powerful logic to a rather conventional final act, despite the amazing theatrics in meantime.”
This kind of brinkmanship will almost definitionally be damaging to the GOP. I wouldn’t be shocked if the surprise factor — not to mention the elective nature and absurd premises of these particular fights — makes the damage worse than it would otherwise be.