from The Water's Edge

Friday File: Brinkmanship on the Debt Ceiling

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Budget, Debt, and Deficits

The National Debt Clock hangs on a wall next to an office for the Internal Revenue Service near Times Square in New York, May 16, 2011.
The National Debt Clock hangs on a wall next to an office for the Internal Revenue Service near Times Square in New York, May 16, 2011. (Chip East/courtesy Reuters)

Above the Fold. They say that if you wait long enough everything comes back into fashion. Such seems to be the case with brinkmanship, the idea that leaders should go to the edge of disaster during a crisis to get their way. Brinksmanship was a hot concept back in the 1950s along with coonskin hats, and it is enjoying a renaissance in the current showdown over the national debt ceiling. Republican leaders know that failing to cut a deal would be economically and politically catastrophic. (The Economist and the National Journal both run through that nightmare scenario if you want to see what it looks like.) But they also know that “hanging tough,” to put a positive spin on the same idea, can be a devastatingly effective negotiating tactic—provided of course that the other side blinks first, which is what President Obama may be doing with his offer to rein in Social Security spending. But there is one small catch. Back when John Foster Dulles was championing brinksmanship, presidents could deliver on the deals they cut once they got to the brink. No one had the standing to undo their handiwork. President Obama and Speaker Boehner can’t be sure they command the same following. Rank-and-file House members on both sides of the aisle could revolt against any Obama-Boehner “grand bargain,” Democrats because they think Obama gave up too much and Republicans because they think Boehner got too little. Throw in the fact that the voters may blanch when they learn how any deal will affect their favorite programs—see the poll question of the week below—and you are guaranteed that the wrangling over the debt ceiling won’t be over until all the votes on Capitol Hill are counted.


CFR Event of the Week. We had a quiet time here at CFR this week. So for the event of the week we are going into the archives. Tomorrow the Republic of South Sudan will officially become independent. Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and Colin Powell, head up the U.S. delegation that will be in Juba for the celebrations. In mid-February my good friend and colleague Irina Faskianos sat down with Katherine Almquist, former assistant administrator for Africa at the U.S. Agency for International Development, and Payton L. Knopf, International Affairs Fellow at CFR, to discuss the prospects for peace in a post-referendum Sudan. Check out the audio.

Read of the Week. Most Americans cheered as ordinary Tunisians, Egyptians, Libyans, and then Syrians took to the streets demanding political change. Richard Haass writes in the pages of the Financial Times, however, that “the promise of the Arab spring has given way to a long, hot summer in which the geopolitics of the Middle East are being reset for the worse.” Although the turmoil in the region will likely have ripple effects well beyond the Middle East, Washington has few levers with which to guide events in a favorable direction: “There is little in foreign policy more difficult than trying to steer the course of reform in another country.” If you think my boss is wrong, just think for a moment about how difficult it is to get American lawmakers to fix things here at home.

Blog Post of the Week. Josh Rogin offers up an early run down on who’s giving foreign policy advice to Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, and Jon Huntsman. The most interesting aspect of Josh’s article may be the fact that “the vast majority of the Republican and conservative foreign-policy professionals and think-tankers in Washington have yet to pick a horse.”


Poll Question of the Week. Entitlement reform is one of the issues at play in the negotiations on raising the debt ceiling. President Obama has proposed cutting spending on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid if Republicans agree to kill some tax breaks. (These tax breaks used to be called “loopholes” but policy wonks now like to call them “tax expenditures.”) So what do Americans think about entitlement reform? The Pew Research Center found in a poll last month that a majority of Americans thinks that Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid all need major changes if not a complete overhaul. At the same time, six in ten Americans favor keeping Social Security and Medicare benefits just as they are and oppose cutting Medicaid benefits for the poor. So yes, the public is effectively saying that it wants a square circle—reforms that neither cost them more nor give them less. The upside of the contradiction for politicians is that no matter which position they favor, they can say they are representing the people’s will.

Chart of the Week. Nate Silver has posted a chart that he calls “one of the more important ones that we’ve presented at FiveThirtyEight in some time. It helps explain a lot of what’s going on in American politics today, from the negotiations over the federal debt ceiling to the Republican presidential primaries.” As you can see, the chart makes a simple point and one that you may have already suspected: over the past decade, an increasing percentage of the people who vote Republican describe themselves as conservatives. Another way of putting the point is that “moderate Republicans” are becoming relatively scarcer. What do the trend lines look like for Democrats? For that you have to read Nate’s blog.

Source: New York Times.

Too Good Not to Note. Steven Cook reveals five things you need to know about the current political mood in Egypt. Liz Economy looks at the WTO ruling that China violated international trade rules when it curbed its exports of “raw earths” such as magnesium and silicon. John Campbell examines the role that social media played in Nigeria’s recent election. Fred Kaplan speculates on the coming effort to cut spending on the U.S. Army. Mustafa Akyol assesses Turkey’s maturing foreign policy. Clyde Prestowitz asks why the United States is bashing China’s trade policies rather than copying them. David Weigel explains the argument that the 14th Amendment allows any president to raise the national debt ceiling without Congress’s permission.

Perils of Prediction. Willie Mays seems to be swinging bad.” Hall-of-Fame pitcher Warren Spahn of the Milwaukee Braves on April 28, 1961. Mays apparently fixed his swing. Two days later he hit four home runs, tying a Major League Baseball record that has yet to be broken.

Quote to Ponder. “You can’t sit on a lead and run a few plays into the line and just kill the clock.  You’ve got to throw the ball over the goddamn plate and give the other man his chance.  That’s why baseball is the greatest game of them all.”  Earl Weaver

A Reason to Smile. The All-Star Game.

More on:

Budget, Debt, and Deficits