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October 03, 2013 10:25 AM Replaying 2011

By Ed Kilgore

If the abnormal-psychology analysis of “nihilists” or blundering terrorists is the wrong way to look at what House Republicans are up to right now, what’s the right way? I’d say Greg Sargent probably has it about right:

Many House Republicans now demanding Boehner exercise maximum tactics to block Obamacare - such as [Blake] Farenthold - were elected in the Tea Party wave of 2010. Their formative legislative experiences included the heady debt ceiling showdown of 2011, in which Obama — badly weakened by the 2010 election results, and fully convinced Republicans would allow default, because an economic meltdown would ensure his 2012 defeat — bowed to the leverage the default threat gave them, resulting in the terrible 2011 austerity deal that still haunts us today.
But all those conditions are no longer operative. Obama won reelection decisively, and now it’s House Republicans who stand to lose the most politically from default and economic havoc. All indications are that Obama now believes he made a major mistake in 2011 and is determined not to repeat it. Indeed, now the incentives run strongly against legitimizing use of the debt ceiling as a tactic to extract concessions.
What’s particularly worrisome is that many House Republicans don’t seem to understand or accept any of this. Stuck in 2011, they continue to proceed from the premise that agreeing to fund the government at sequester levels, or raising the debt ceiling, represent leverage points for which they should be rewarded by concessions in return. It’s true Obama legitimized this idea in 2011. But today’s Tea Partyers don’t seem capable of understanding that this leverage was artificial, rather than an enduring fact - the product of circumstances that have dramatically shifted — and that Democrats are determined not reproduce those circumstances for them.

I’m not as entirely convinced as Greg is that Democrats might not find some way of slipping Republicans enough face-saving concessions to allow them to back down without punishment from “the base.” But the basic idea is right, and it comes down to the bedrock conservative belief that the 2012 elections were an aberration—perhaps caused by Romney’s mistakes, or “media bias” for Obama, or the incumbent’s special relationship with minority voters—and that the 2010 elections were the Real Deal and the wave of the future. If you buy that, then of course you’d assume the dynamics that led to the 2011 fiscal deal were still in force, and just as importantly, conservative activists would think that and expect you to behave accordingly.

The trouble is: how do Obama and congressional Democrats convey convincingly to Republicans that it’s not 2011 any more? Yesterday I suggested a mano a mano confrontation between Obama and Boehner, perhaps over a furtive cigarette or two, in which the president makes it clear he really is not going to negotiate over Obamacare or the debt limit even if the Speaker credibly threatens to take the nation over the brink. Whatever tactic Democrats use, it should be based on a sober realization conservatives are acting on a strong if mistaken concept of the political dynamics involved.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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