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Reagan and Debt Ceiling “Blackmail”

Ross Douthat reviews a previous instance when Democrats linked other demands to the debt ceiling during Reagan’s second term, but then says this:

That doesn’t mean that what the Republicans are doing now is the same as what the Democrats did then — it very much isn’t, and it’s much dumber and more dangerous [bold mine-DL]. The Democrats controlled both houses of Congress, not one, they passed a modest bill that didn’t require total ideological surrender from the Reagan White House, and — note well — they did all this, as Glass writes, with “significant amounts of moderate Republican support.” That is to say, they were operating from a position of political strength, making policy demands that attracted bipartisan support, and putting Reagan in a position where he would be politically isolated if he fought too hard against them. Whereas the House Republicans are operating from a weaker position, making demands that haven’t yet cracked the wall of the Democratic unity, and putting Obama in a position, thus far, where he can’t move to meet them without essentially cutting the heart out of his presidency.

In short, House Republicans are behaving in a way that is less reasonable than behavior that Reagan dubbed blackmail, and they are doing it with no chance of success. On top of that, they are potentially exposing the U.S. to real harm in the process. There are only differing degrees and kinds of defeat awaiting the GOP in this fight, which is fitting enough considering the needless damage it is causing to the country as a whole. Because House Republicans’ demands have been so unrealistic, and because many of them are determined not to settle for anything that they might actually be able to get, they are giving Obama all the political cover he needs to refuse to negotiate with them. Over the last two weeks, Republicans have acted in such a way to maximize their own political liabilities, and they have put themselves in the ridiculous position where the only person that can get them out of the jam that they created for themselves is the president whom they oppose. Obama would be wise to take a deal like the one that Reagan agreed to under protest, but that is only possible if House Republicans are wise enough to offer it. Nothing we have seen in recent weeks suggests that they are.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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