There Are Limits to Hardball

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House Republicans have apparently agreed to raise the debt ceiling for three months, and liberals are widely declaring victory. I’d advise caution on two grounds. First, we haven’t yet seen the actual proposal, so we don’t know if they’re offering a clean bill or one with obnoxious conditions. Second, is three months really that big a victory? Jaime Fuller Paul Waldman, echoing many others, writes:

There’s a lesson for the White House: Hardball works. Unlike in previous crises, President Obama didn’t try to make a bunch of pre-concessions in the hope that Republicans would moderate their position. He simply told them that the debt ceiling wasn’t up for negotiation. It just had to be raised, and that was all there was to it. And what do you know, he won. For three months at least. Then we get to do it all over again.

I don’t entirely disagree with this, and I’m certainly in favor of Obama adopting a more tough-minded negotiating posture. Still I’m not sure that “hardball works” is really the lesson to be learned here. I think the lesson is that hardball works if your opponents have a weak hand. In the case of the fiscal cliff, taxes were going to go up automatically if Republicans refused to make a deal. Their hand was disastrously weak. In the case of the debt ceiling, the business community told them in no uncertain terms that playing games with the full faith and credit of the United States government would be catastrophic. Republicans knew this was true, and they knew they’d be blamed for it. They had no way out.

In both cases, Obama could have blown it. He could have failed to recognize the strength of his own position and made preemptive compromises. It’s to his credit that he didn’t. Still, to say that hardball won these arguments misses a big piece of the story. Whether it works in the future will depend a lot on how weak the Republican position is. It’s not a cure-all.

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THE BIG PICTURE

You expect the big picture, and it's our job at Mother Jones to give it to you. And right now, so many of the troubles we face are the making not of a virus, but of the quest for profit, political or economic (and not just from the man in the White House who could have offered leadership and comfort but instead gave us bleach).

In "News Is Just Like Waste Management," we unpack what the coronavirus crisis has meant for journalism, including Mother Jones’, and how we can rise to the challenge. If you're able to, this is a critical moment to support our nonprofit journalism with a donation: We've scoured our budget and made the cuts we can without impairing our mission, and we hope to raise $400,000 from our community of online readers to help keep our big reporting projects going because this extraordinary pandemic-plus-election year is no time to pull back.

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