The world has moved on from debt ceiling gamesmanship

‘Big spender’ is no longer a political epithet

Mitch McConnell and Charles E. Schumer at a 9/11 commemoration last week. McConnell’s refusal to provide any GOP votes to prevent a government default is as ineffective as it is irresponsible, Shapiro writes.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Mitch McConnell and Charles E. Schumer at a 9/11 commemoration last week. McConnell’s refusal to provide any GOP votes to prevent a government default is as ineffective as it is irresponsible, Shapiro writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted September 21, 2021 at 6:00am

One of the hardest things in politics — and journalism — is to recognize when the world has changed.

Based on past precedent, it is easy to assume that the 2022 midterms will be shaped by what happens on Capitol Hill over the coming weeks. Seemingly everything that matters politically is on the fall agenda, from potentially the largest spending bill in American history (reconciliation) to the full faith and credit of the United States (debt ceiling). 

But while there is no way to be certain, a strong case can be made that what Congress does, or does not do, legislatively will be overshadowed in November 2022 by external events. 

Here are three examples of such nontraditional factors that have emerged in just the last week:

Pfizer revealed Monday that its vaccine has proved safe and effective in trials for children aged 5 to 11. If approved by the government, millions of elementary school children could be fully vaccinated by Thanksgiving. 

Almost everything else in American political life is secondary to the pandemic. The closer the nation — already lagging behind most industrialized countries — comes to full vaccination, the more upbeat the public mood is likely to be on Election Day.

Abortion may play a far more dominant role in motivating voters to turn out in 2022 than any social issue in decades. 

While news stories about the rigidly restrictive Texas abortion law have faded from the front pages, it is a temporary lull. On Monday, the Supreme Court announced it would begin to consider on Dec. 1 a Mississippi case that could lead to the overturning of Roe v Wade next year. 

The third development in the last week that may have lasting reverberations in the 2022 election campaigns was the statement by anti-Trump Ohio Republican Anthony Gonzalez that he would not seek a third term to the House. In his announcement, Gonzalez admitted, “The toxic dynamics inside our own party is a significant factor in my decision.”

Donald Trump’s scorched-earth campaign against Republicans who voted for impeachment (as Gonzalez did) and who do not indulge his Joe-Biden-is-a-fake president fantasies may do more to polarize the 2022 electorate that any other factor. 

In a Monday editorial, The Wall Street Journal pointed out that if Republicans go along with the “stolen election canard … they’ll give Democrats an opening to tie them to the Jan. 6 riot and Mr. Trump’s attempt to overturn the election result.”

The Journal’s editorial page, a bastion of traditional, pro-business conservatism, fears that this kind of fealty to Trump would put “GOP candidates in a tough spot as they attempt to retake the suburban seats they will need to win the House.”

The coming budgetary debates on Capitol Hill also reflect a changed world. 

It is not only that the Democrats have gone to the left in their pursuit of a dramatic expansion of the social safety net and aggressive action to minimize global warming. But the traditional political constraints against massive government spending have also all but vanished. 

Take as a point of comparison 2011, which was the last time there was a serious risk that the federal government would default because Congress refused to raise the debt ceiling. 

A New York Times/CBS News poll from late June 2011 found that voters considered the budget deficit and the national debt to be the second most serious problem facing the nation. Admittedly, that answer (7 percent) was dwarfed by those worried about economy and jobs (53 percent). 

The 2011 debt ceiling fight illustrated how much politics back then was dominated by green-eyeshade concerns about the deficit. In poll after poll, voters were more concerned that raising the debt limit would increase federal spending (incorrect) than were rightly worried that a failure to act would send the nation into default.

These days, deficits have all but disappeared from the national conversation. The trillions blur on both Capitol Hill and in the minds of the voters after the unfunded Trump tax cuts and the massive spending necessary to cushion the economy at the height of the pandemic.

In August, Gallup asked voters in a poll to name the most important issue facing the country. Government spending and the national debt were mentioned by only 2 percent of those surveyed. 

Where once the GOP was seen as the party of fiscal restraint, now neither party has an edge on the issue. An Associated Press/NORC survey in mid-July found that the Democrats and the Republicans were each judged by 27 percent voters as the most trusted to handle the “budget deficit.” Another 28 percent skeptically said “neither.”

These numbers are helpful in understanding the political ramifications of Monday’s proposal by congressional Democrats to pass short-term legislation to push the debt ceiling crisis into early next year. 

We have moved past the point when a debt ceiling vote would endanger anyone’s reelection to Congress. In a gotcha political environment, there are so many other votes and controversial positions to be exploited in negative TV spots with voice-of-doom narration. 

The gamesmanship by Mitch McConnell, in so far refusing to provide any Republican votes to prevent default, is as ineffective as it is irresponsible. 

This debt ceiling brinksmanship might have been smart politics in 2011. But life has moved on — and McConnell and company are locked in the past, somehow believing that “big spender” is still a political epithet. 

Walter Shapiro has covered the last 11 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.