Belmont Club

The Game of Chickens

There are two sets asymmetries that characterize the budget showdown over Obamacare. The first is that it is the Democrats, not the Republicans, who really have the hostage. The hostage is the taxpayer dollars already paid in the expectation of services. The basic calculus of the Democratic party is that the voters need what the tax dollars paid for so much that they’ll accept even legislation they hate just to keep the music playing. John Dickerson writes in Slate.

In the first hours of the shutdown, the terrain looks very bad for Republicans. It’s amazing how consistent the polls have been about linking a confrontation over the Affordable Care Act to funding of the government. While polls show the public disapproves of the law, it has consistently told pollsters it is not in favor of tying government operations to defunding the health care plan.

But even though the Dems have the hostage, they are needier in this negotiation than the Republicans.  To the Republicans, conceding Obamacare only changes the degree to which the GOP plays second fiddle to the Democrats.  It only changes the speed at which they acquiesce to Big Government, a process that’s been going on since FDR. But for the Democrats, for whom big government is the basis of power, any step back on Obamacare would strike at the very foundation of their strength. “Forward” is not just a slogan. It’s a condition of existence. In some strange way, the asymmetry ensures it is the Dems who in the “no retreat no surrender” position. It is the Democrats who must prevail at all costs. Seung Min Kim at Politico writes:

They’re up for reelection in places where President Barack Obama is deeply unpopular, but red-state Democrats are sticking with their party in the acrimonious fight over Obamacare and shutting down the government. …

Not a single Democrat crossed party lines Monday in a Senate vote to reject House-passed provisions that would have, among other things, delayed Obamacare for one year. The cohesion stands in contrast to other divisive issues such as gun control and spending cuts that have led red-state Democrats to split with their colleagues.

The reason for this is simple. Like any Ponzi scheme they need money to keep the pensions, the promises, the whole system of rewards going. Like a Ponzi setup, an ever-enlarging Big Government has only two modes: a brilliant tomorrow or total failure.

This pair of imbalances has led to some seemingly contradictory behavior incentives whose drivers need to be understood in order to make sense of them. Max Fisher of the Washington Post, for example, notes that Obama actually can’t do anything in Washington because the whole shutdown is in part political theater, so he’s better off just doing is job.

“Look at it this way,” he writes, “the federal government shut down eight times under Ronald Reagan. What did history ultimately record as more important: any one of those eight shutdowns (say, the one in October 1986), or the Reagan administration’s successful effort to use preferential trade policies to coax some Caribbean nations away from Soviet orbit and toward the American?” The  sky isn’t going to fall in the short term.

So Fisher thinks Obama should go to China as scheduled and “cultivate American influence in that increasingly important part of the world”. But as Thomas Wright, who studies foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, told Fisher on Twitter, Obama doesn’t dare. “I’d hate him to miss it, but I don’t see how he can go. He needs to be in D.C. and be seen to lead, broker a deal, etc.”

That’s because he has to pretend the shutdown is the earth-shaking event it is made out to be.

The constraints on the President are something you wouldn’t expect if it were only a matter of waiting for the Republicans to die by from shutdown poison they ingested. As Manu Raju and Burgess Everett of Politico noted, a Democratic triumph is a little more complicated than waiting for the GOP to come up for air. They report that Obama almost got cold feet at the last minute before the shutdown, which suggests that he sees warning lights flashing in the distance. The president was tempted to negotiate with Boehner but only the assurances of Harry Reid kept Obama from doing it.

When the president considered sitting down with the four congressional leaders in the White House ahead of the deadline to avert a government shutdown, Reid privately urged Obama to call off the meeting, according to several people familiar with the situation. Reid believed that it would amount to nothing more than a photo-op that would give the false impression that a serious negotiation was occurring, even warning he wouldn’t attend such a session. Obama scrapped it.

The key problem for Reid was that Obama could show no weakness; if the Dems caved on this issue, even wobbled, then the ever-timid GOP might be emboldened. “‘He’s been the rock … and he’s had our whole caucus behind him,’ said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), a close Reid ally who spoke with the majority leader nine times on Saturday afternoon. ‘Because if we negotiate on a short-term [government funding bill], what are [Republicans] going to do on a long-term bill? What are they going to do on the debt ceiling?'”

What indeed, when a step back in the ever forward drive for bigger government means not smaller government but the cliff.  Yet the strategy of assuming the Republicans would lose, that they must quit the game of chicken was fraught with unappreciated peril.

Reid’s no-compromise stance is not without its own risks. With Washington held in such low regard, politicians of all stripes are certain to incur fury from constituents once government services are suspended, parks are closed and hundreds of thousands of federal workers are furloughed. And Reid now is protecting a fragile Democratic Senate majority, with Republicans just six seats away from returning to power — so any misstep by the Nevada Democrat could hurt vulnerable senators in red states.

The biggest danger for the Democrats is probably the temptation to hurry things up; to give the Chicken Little prediction a little shove. As most people have noted, the sun rose today and is more than likely to rise tomorrow. The shutdown didn’t end the world. Max Fisher said as much when he argued that Obama could better use his time in China then attending to politics in Washington. But the sun keeps rising for long enough, the sharp stab of pain, the reminder of the pivotal role of government which was supposed to goad the voters into their camp won’t happen acutely enough for Reid to win.

And a draw is as good as a loss for Obama and Harry Reid. In the nature of things they will be tempted to intensify the pangs. Pour a little accellerant on things. Talk up the misery. Stir up the pot. But this is a dangerous game given the fact that Obamacare is an existential issue for the Dems. They are playing with their lives and should be more risk averse in a conflict over it than the GOP.

The game is theirs to lose and they could lose it by single miscalculation. So in all likelihood Obama will stay in Washington until he makes sure the Republicans are beaten down. If he goes to China then the optics will shout that the Sky isn’t falling, or at least that no differently than from the effect of Obamacare.

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