Political Animal


September 01, 2011 10:10 AM The consequences of scorched-earth policymaking

By Steve Benen

A month after the standoff was resolved, the fight over the debt ceiling still stands out as a surreal tragedy.

In fact, I still think it’s the worst thing a major American political party has done in modern times. There have been plenty of misdeeds in recent generations, but there’s just something unique about the Republican Party deliberately holding the full faith and credit of the United States hostage, threatening to impose a catastrophe on all of us, on purpose, to achieve a specific (and unnecessary) policy goal. No elected GOP officials — literally, not one — ever stood up during this process to say, “Wait, this is wrong. We shouldn’t do this.” They all just went along.

This wasn’t just another partisan dispute; it was a scandal for the ages. We’re still coming to terms with the consequences — this one radical Republican scheme helped lead to the first-ever downgrade of U.S. debt; it roiled financial markets and generated widespread uncertainty about the stability of the American system; it severely undermined American credibility on the global stage.

And it appears to have been a punch to the gut to Americans’ confidence. After all of the nation’s recent challenges, the GOP’s scheme effectively kicked us when we were down.

The recently concluded debate over the nation’s debt ceiling was, without doubt, a messy process with a questionable outcome. But it was far more than that. According to a new analysis by one of the country’s leading pollsters, the standoff dealt a devastating body blow to public confidence in the economy and government that has powerful implications for the 2012 elections.

“The debt ceiling negotiation is an extremely significant event that is profoundly and sharply reshaping views of the economy and the federal government,” Bill McInturff of Public Opinion Strategies wrote in a just-completed analysis. “It has led to a scary erosion in confidence in both, at a time when this steep drop in confidence can be least afforded.”

The battle played out in Washington as a tense confrontation between President Obama and Republicans in Congress. Each side assumed that, with the outcome, the other would bear the brunt of public dissatisfaction. Obama believed he would be rewarded for appearing open to compromise and for being the adult in the room. Republicans thought they would gain by showing greater determination to cut spending.

Instead, both sides lost — badly.

As McInturff, a Republican pollster, sees it, this months-long crisis “led to an immediate collapse in confidence in government and all the major players.” The public effectively threw up its arms in disgust, which is not an unreasonable reaction.

For Republicans, this scorched-earth tack may have been fully acceptable. They’re getting a fair amount of debt reduction and they’ve taken a sledgehammer to Americans’ confidence in their own government. Sure, the GOP looks like political monsters, but they’ve made a calculated bet — a sinking tide lowers all boats. Since President Obama is the leading figure in American politics, Republicans counted on the electorate turning on him, too, even though he was responsible, conciliatory, and reasonable towards the GOP throughout the process.

McInturff believes this one fiasco has shaken the political foundations, which necessarily leads to unpredictable results. I don’t know if that’s true; we’ll find out next year. I do believe, however, that some political crimes are indefensible on a historic scale. After all Americans have been through in recent years, the fact that Republicans chose to pull this stunt, and don’t even care about the consequences, is unforgivable.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.


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  • melior on September 01, 2011 10:20 AM:

    In terms of blows to the integrity of our national ideal of balanced tri-partite government, as bad as this was, SCOTUS pretending to be a papal conclave and intervening to award the Presidency to Chimpy like a cheap carny prize was worse.

  • karen marie on September 01, 2011 10:21 AM:

    Debt reduction was merely cover for the true goal of Republicans: Breaking "Americans’ confidence in their own government."

    For Republicans, it was a win-win, no matter how badly they may appear to be doing in the polls, because the media will never allow the public to understand how well their government could work if not for the terrorists in our midst.

  • c u n d gulag on September 01, 2011 10:23 AM:

    People in this country are so stupid, that even after 30 years of Republcian jingoistic flag-waving, and political and media manipulation, they don't realize that Republcians don't care what country they control power in, or what condition the country they control power is in.

    The only thing that matters is - POWER!

    PARTY UBER ALLES!!!!!!!!

  • walt on September 01, 2011 10:25 AM:

    The Republican Party is shameless, radical, and nihilistic. We all know that. It's been getting worse over time and there's a high probability they'll be rewarded at the polls next year for their strategy/scorched-earth politics.

    Obama's politics of conciliation make up the M to the GOP's S. It's unseemly and ineffective. While I understand the constraints Obama works under, particularly given our corporate media whores, he needs better political advice. He's losing the American people because he wimps out over and over and over with these thugs.

    A president leads, commands, and instills respect. Obama does not. This story won't get better by pointing out how awful Republicans are. We know that. What's required here is a president who rises to this challenge with something better than submission behavior.

  • AMS on September 01, 2011 10:29 AM:

    What the Republicans did on the debt ceiling was thoroughly reprehensible, but from their strictly political point of view, perhaps its most positive effect was to diminish Obama in the eyes of his own supporters. Enthusiasm and turnout will be vital in 2012. The GOP base is already energized, but for the Republicans to win the Presidency many of the voters who turned out for Obama in 2008 have to stay home. Mission accomplished, judging by the writings of the pundits on the left (and readers' comments thereto) that followed the debt ceiling fiasco: "I'm finally through with Obama! He's a weakling! I'll never vote for him again!Why didn't he invoke the 14th amendment!", etc. The evil genius of the Republican debt ceiling shenanigans put Obama in a position where he could either let the country default (which he would never do) or accede to a deal that would enrage his base. We all know how that turned out.

  • Bokonon on September 01, 2011 10:32 AM:

    I used to think that the GOP was enamored with Leninist tactics. They certainly used a few during the health care reform debate last year.

    That was bad enough. But now, I think things are worse than that. The GOP has turned the corner, and they have adopted Maoist tactics.

    Scorched earth, murder, intimidation, and deliberate chaos. Because when you totally destroy the social infrastructure, then you can replace the political system with a free hand (and no compromises).

  • PTate in MN on September 01, 2011 10:40 AM:

    "Republicans counted on the electorate turning on [Obama], too, even though he was responsible, conciliatory, and reasonable towards the GOP throughout the process...."

    Obama has taken his progressive base for granted, and it is costing him. I'd say the fact that he was hoping to "win" a debt-ceiling stand-off by being "responsible, conciliatory, and reasonable towards the GOP throughout the process..." is EXACTLY why progressives are deeply discouraged.

    The Republicans are seditious by every definition of the word. "Sedition is the stirring up of rebellion against the government in power." That is exactly what the Republicans are doing. They have been doing it loudly and proudly since Obama won in 2008, and we need to start charging them with sedition. Obama should not be cooperating with these anarchists.

  • SadOldVet on September 01, 2011 10:40 AM:

    I commend President Obama for his consistency.

    Whether it is something big (last December's budget deal or the debt ceiling debacle) or something small (changing the date for his address on jobs), President Obama retains his title as Capitulator-In-Chief.

  • rbe1 on September 01, 2011 10:48 AM:

    We get what we deserve, simple.

  • Robert on September 01, 2011 10:49 AM:

    This has been the messiest part of the coup. The corporations are now trying to consolidate their gains by using the republican primary to cover the other things going on behind the scenes. There is a stirring of the sleeping giant, and hopefully the over-reach of the corporations will lead to a counter-coup.

  • Trinity on September 01, 2011 10:50 AM:

    We are well and truly f***ed.

    This will not end well.

  • sjw on September 01, 2011 10:55 AM:

    It was a fiasco. But it didn't have to happen: Obama messed up in waiting till this year to settle the issue when it could have been done last year. And once it was happening, Obama messed up again with his "strategy" of passivity. Waiting for a consensus to develop might work in community organizing -- I have no idea -- and it's expected in a Zen master, but it sure doesn't suit the world of politics: Leadership, Leadership, Leadership. That's what is needed, and that's what is missing.

    P.S. What do you want to bet that Obama et al. mess up with the Big Jobs Push? Indeed they're already off on the wrong foot just in terms of scheduling the speech! You'll see: Obama gives his speech, and then -- you guessed it -- waits for Congress to come together and enact something on jobs. Geez, it's painful to watch ...

  • Texas Aggie on September 01, 2011 11:01 AM:

    AMS pretty much says everything about the situation that needs to be said. Now the question is do we go with the much lesser or the much greater of two evils (Obama or Goodhair). Or do we set the stage so that someone with intestinal fortitude (Elizabeth Warren) can step into the position in the near future?

    If we go with the lesser of the two, then there's a chance that someone else can clean up after. If we go with the greater, there won't be anything left to clean up because the country will have been completely destroyed. Given those two choices, it behooves us to get people out to the polls and get people elected to Congress and the Senate who will fight for our country instead of for corporate America.

  • Ron Byers on September 01, 2011 11:05 AM:

    As bad as the debt ceiling battle was, I think Frank Rich has it right. The worst thing Republicans have done in the last ten years is to tell the American people to go shopping after 9/11. Not calling for sacrifice to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afganistan might just be the end of America.

    People we have gone from the world's leading CAN DO to the GET OFF MY LAWN NATION in about 10 short years and we aren't done dropping yet.

  • MNRD on September 01, 2011 11:07 AM:

    "...it severely undermined American credibility on the global stage."

    And it fatally shattered the Republican Party's credibility on the global stage. The Republican Party's international reputation is now so terrible that in all likelihood an electoral victory by the Republicans in 2012 would itself set off a global economic panic that would lead quickly to a depression.

  • QuestionEverything on September 01, 2011 11:26 AM:

    The gop has 'played' America well. As long as you have ignorance, fear, anger, and a complicit Media, you have all the elements that you need to do serious damage. It's hard for me to imagine how this could happen. I don't have faith in American's (or at least the majority of them) to keep up on what is happening, stay informed (not misinformed) enough to thwart these guys.

    Full Disclosure: I didn't have faith that Americans, much less 65 million of them, would have voted for Obama in '08.

    I have a real live Tea Party/GOP congressman representing me. I went to his Town Hall Meeting this week. All the ignorance, pettiness, misinformation that you can stand and more.

    I could have asked any number of policy questions or questions about the information that he presented but live in a very RED district so I ended up asking a question about how his Tea Party handled this issue that you're blogging about.

    I asked him to address this "irresponsible" handling of this important issue. The 'crowd' had 'interjected' a few times in my asking my question. I asked him if we could expect this irresponsible behavior again. He spoke of solutions (like CCB, quoted a recent CNN poll of 2/3 of Americans who support CCB-I'll have to look that one up) but didn't answer my specific question. I asked again and the crowd answered for him ("YES!"). These people don't care about responsible behavior. He basically shrugged like, well, there's your answer.

    I was a bit overwhelmed with the tide of ignorance and insistence on irresponsible and reckless behavior. I'm not giving up but this is going to be hard to overcome.

    This is frickan important stuff!

  • sick-n-effn-tired. on September 01, 2011 11:36 AM:

    @ Karen Marie
    Almost Everything you see on yer TEEVEE and hear on the radio is filtered through the big 6. Just go here :
    and click on the various items . Any flavor you want as long as it is corporate filtered he said she said . Mr and Mrs average Q viewer ain't going to look for the truth . They accept what is fed them as the truth

  • Brenna on September 01, 2011 11:37 AM:

    Obama should never have let the debt ceiling be used as a negotiating tool in the first place. He should have kept firm on that. Sure, the republicans could have still held it hostage but at least the waters wouldn't have been muddied. And most of us dems would still have respect for Obama.

    He played a role in that debacle. Yes, the republicans are disgusting sub human beings, but as someone pointed out on another thread, Obama has been an enabler. He needs to step up and be a leader and not play these silly political games like he did yesterday. Like the republicans play them. That's fine.

  • Josef K on September 01, 2011 12:07 PM:

    The greatest tragedy of this mess is that most of the public likely never understood what was in play or at stake. Neither the President nor the Democrats made the case in any concrete, easy-to-apply-to-your-life way; part of that I suspect was because it wouldn't serve their short-term goals of getting this 'grand bargain'.

    But the rest of it? People, and a good number of the GOP caucus, need to be better educated what this all costs and how their lives will be impacted. I don't want to think that either the electorate or the 2011 freshmen Republicans are so wedded to an anti-government ideology they'll want to sink the country whole.

  • jhill on September 01, 2011 1:45 PM:

    As we add up the worst things they've done, we need to include the Tea Party campaign against the ACA in Summer 2010, which managed to destroy the Town Hall as a useful device for democratic communication. Question Everything's post makes clear that whatever shreds of civility people thought were appropriate to maintain on these occasions have been tossed away. Of course I may be a little snake-bit on this point, being in Gabby Gifford's district.

  • INTJ on September 01, 2011 2:20 PM:

    I stopped reading at "worst thing a major American political party has done in modern times." After such a ridiculous premise, I knew there would be nothing of substance in the body.

  • Gene Guffey on September 01, 2011 3:28 PM:

    If you think the GOP is playing a bad hand against the people of America, then pray inform me why the Democrats refused to pass a budget in over 800 days when they controlled all three houses of the government. Why has the national budget gone into defict since the Democras took control of both the Congress and Senate? why have the Democrats raised the $400 billion defict to over $3 trillion? Tell me please that it was the Repbulicans and not the Democrats who controlled the purse.

  • Dave H on September 01, 2011 5:21 PM:

    Obama was "responsible, conciliatory, and reasonable towards the GOP throughout the process." Don't call my bluff, Eric.

  • Mitch on September 01, 2011 5:32 PM:


    Well, you should always keep reading, even if you disagree with something. Maybe especially when you disagree. For example, I have read Rick Perry's book, and plan to read Dick Cheney's. I am an atheist, but I read the Bible quite frequently.

    That being said, I can think of quite a few things that are much worse than the debt ceiling debacle. To name only three: the Patriot Act, the War in Iraq and the War on Drugs are all far worse. The credit rating on the nation is important, but nowhere near as important as the loss of our liberties from the Patriot Act, the loss of thousands and thousands of lives in Iraq and the wasteful pointlessness of Prohibition, that does nothing but empower violent criminals and put many harmless people in prison.

    So you're right about that part; it was a ridiculous statement, although the rest of the article is worth reading.

    Captcha: Socialist critiat

    Dammit even the Captcha is calling us Commies now.

  • John D. Froelich on September 02, 2011 3:16 AM:

    So, it's really horrible and Republicans should be blamed for working overtime to RESCUE the American economy from the jobless stagnation of the Welfare State. Are we supposed to boo and hiss against the people who tried to get enuf budget cuts to avoid the downgrade? Expect a second Tea Party surge in 2012.

  • yellowdog on September 02, 2011 5:06 AM:

    Obama won the American public to his point of view during the debt mess--his balanced, reasonable approach is what most people want. He explained what he wanted and why it mattered, and the public agreed with him--and not just Democrats--but independents and Republicans too. Obama got thousands of people to call and write the Hill and get engaged on the issue. Servers crashed from all the traffic.

    The GOP in Congress could not have cared any less what the public wanted.

    Repeat: On the most important issue of the day, the GOP brazenly told the public to take a hike.

    Is it any wonder the approval ratings of Congress and the GOP leadership are at historic lows? They are clowns. They are well out of the mainstream, yet they continue to push further and further to the right--well beyond what the public wants.

    In this debt episode, Obama got (some) people to understand (some of) the GOP madness he has to deal with on a daily basis. Mainstream people--and even the loathsome media--started calling the GOP leaders hostage takers. S&P blasted the GOP for its destructive antics. Billionaires like Warren Buffett and industry leaders called out GOP nonsense. The Fed Chair (appointed first by the GOP) called the House GOP a den of idiots (in milder economist-speak, but still). International observers laughed at the GOP for its views (a very worried, nervous laugh). Meanwhile, local activists in Wisconsin managed to come within a few thousand recall votes of taking back the State Senate from reactionary Republicans. (Do you know how rare successful recalls are?) In Wisconsin, Ohio, and other states, Republican officials' popularity has sunk. (It is being propped up mostly by propaganda and the boatloads of cash unnamed corporate donors can give them.)

    Out on the campaign trail, major GOP candidates for national office are pitching more and more radical ideas--like ending Social Security and not responding to natural disasters. Just for kicks, ol' Dick Cheney has now come out of his bunker to pitch his book--showing that he has learned nothing and still thinks torture is a good idea.

    The GOP is a degraded thing, not what it once was. It is a radical outfit now--all dissent squashed. The American public may want stronger leadership from Obama--no one wants a president being compared to a hostage--but the public also now has a sharper idea of what the GOP has in store. Look at the numbers: The public likes the GOP direction not a whit. They will go there only if Obama gives them no alternative.

    Obama can address his problem much more easily than the GOP can. The public has now looked inside the GOP clown-car. It does not like who's driving or where they're headed. The occupants of the clown car may not be aware of this. They keep rolling merrily along--oblivious to sounds from outside the in-bred family.

    Obama can lose by dithering, by offering no plan for recovery, by appearing feckless, by looking indecisive, by offering no real hope. Then, any alternative to him would take on luster, whether it deserved to or not. If Obama can set forth a recovery plan and get the mass public to buy into it, though, he will run over the clown car in that sleek new presidential bus.

  • JohnR22 on September 02, 2011 8:18 AM:

    What nonsense. Pure hyperbole. Our spending and debt are totally...utterly...out of control; a $14T national debt on track to reach $23T by 2017. The newly elected Repub House puts its foot down and uses the Debt Ceiling deadline as an opportunity to force some sanity into Obama's budget (as if he had a budget). And yeah, I use the word "force" because it's the ONLY way to get the lunatic fringe that controls the Senate and White House to face reality.

    And let's be clear. Obama has NO intention of cutting govt or spending. It's just more lies to pacify independent voters. If reelected Obama will hold firm on growing govt, increasing spending and jacking taxes through the roof. Unemployment and GDP growth? Who cares about such trivial things when the utopia of socialism is within reach.

  • Gerald Sutliff on September 02, 2011 11:05 AM:

    Re: Debt Ceiling "crisis".
    Dear Mr. Benen,
    I became bored with the coverage of the Debt Ceiling "crisis" just about the time I finished reading "Web of Debt" by Ellen Brown.
    The solution is "out there" should we have the courage to look.

  • manapp99 on September 02, 2011 11:14 AM:

    Exactly JohnR22. Benen is so in hate with the GOP he cannot see the forest for the trees. It was NOT the debate that caused our credit rating to drop it was the fact that the compromise (the so-called super committee) was just another sign that congress and the President are not going to deal with the nations catastrophic debt problems in any real or meaninful fashion. The real solutions are so politically poisonous that no politician, Dem or GOP, is willing to deal with them. Look at Greece or Italy and you will see that even when the crap is within inches of hitting the fan they will still try and avoid the tough choices. Politicians are politicians no matter what color jersey they wear and it would behoove we the people to jump off of whatever parties bandwagon your on and demand that government either toe the fiscal line or get the hell out of the way.