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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