The song remains the same old song

Last-minute deals on debt ceiling are a sign of the times

There was plenty of analysis over how Mitch McConnell “blinked” over the debt limit, but it’s just part of a game that everyone understands, Rothenberg writes.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
There was plenty of analysis over how Mitch McConnell “blinked” over the debt limit, but it’s just part of a game that everyone understands, Rothenberg writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted October 12, 2021 at 6:30am

The debate over raising the debt ceiling and President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda reminds me of the title of a 1965 song released by the Four Tops on the Motown label — “It’s the Same Old Song.”

I watch the two parties make the same arguments, offer the same criticisms of their opponents and make the same threats. And I watch the media offer the same warnings, promise the same disasters unless something is done and treat every deadline as if it is the most important one in the history of humanity.

In fact, almost everything you’ve seen over the past few weeks — the bluster, the whining, the prophecies of doom — has been predictable because it has happened repeatedly over the past few decades. As I wrote in my April 11, 2011, column in Roll Call:  “Congress often waits until the clock is running out before it actually gets down to dealing with big issues, whether spending or policy matters. … But the current hyperpartisan political environment makes it even less possible than usual to negotiate deals well before the clock strikes midnight. That’s because party leaders and activists spend most of their time playing to each party’s political base, rallying supporters behind their agenda and mobilizing their base against the opposition.”

Remember that the “hyperpartisan political environment” I referred to in that column reflected the mood in 2011. Since then, the environment has become even more polarized.

The parties went through a similar struggle over President Barack Obama’s health care bill in 2009-2010 and over the budget in 2011. The dynamics are much the same. As I wrote in that past column: “Instead of getting the agreement that they could have had four or five months earlier, Democrats on Capitol Hill beat their drums for the public option to keep the party’s grassroots energized. That helped with Democratic fundraising and kept liberals (both on Capitol Hill and in the rank and file) feeling good about the president and the congressional leadership. Democrats finally passed a health care reform bill that didn’t include the public option only when the alternative was no bill at all. Liberals, of course, were less than happy about the outcome, but at least they could accept that party leaders had fought until the last possible moment for the best bill, compromising only when absolutely necessary.”

And that’s the key. Voters on both sides must feel as if they absolutely got the best deal possible, which is demonstrated by the fact that Congress almost drove the bus off the cliff. Again from that 2011 column: “An early compromise would have been seen by liberals and by tea party types as caving in, while a nail-biting, last-minute agreement could be explained as the best possible deal by each side. Given the pressures to hold out to the end of negotiations to prove to each party’s base that congressional leaders got the best deal possible, we are almost certain to see more eleventh-hour deals ahead. There is no incentive for the parties to do anything else. When the deals are finally cut, of course, both parties can say that the other side caved, even if it isn’t true.”

That’s exactly what happened over the past few weeks. Deadlines weren’t met or were extended. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief, even though no problem was solved. 

Now, the parties have more time to show that they are fighting hard for the best deal possible. 

It’s a game that everyone understands. The Democrats. The Republicans. The media. Everyone expects and benefits from the drama — because, at least in theory — there is always the chance that a deal won’t be struck, a compromise won’t be reached and disaster won’t be avoided.

So much blinking

This year, when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell agreed to a short extension of the debt ceiling, we got plenty of analysis about how he “blinked.” 

That is how The Washington Post described the last-minute agreement to raise the debt ceiling until December: “For most Republicans, the notion of backing off their negotiating position has been hard to swallow.”

It’s how Axios described the deal: “McConnell’s decision was in large part driven by Democrats’ fresh calls to go nuclear and modify the filibuster — which requires 60 votes to move on major legislation — as they sought to break the debt-limit impasse.”

It’s how Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin portrayed the agreement, saying, McConnell “rarely, if ever, gives in to appeals to patriotism. When he does back down, it is worth considering why.”

What is interesting is that the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee used the “blinked” image in a fundraising email sent out shortly after a budget deal in 2011. “Friend,” the email began, “the Republicans blinked.”

The email went on to claim that “today the Democrats have shown that they will not be bullied by the Tea Party into abandoning our core values. … We won. And the Republicans lost.”

So, get ready for more warnings of disaster, more talk about risk to the country and to the Biden presidency, more arguing back and forth, and more deadline deals. Because everyone needs to wait for a last-minute deal to show they did their best. And the media needs those eyeballs.