As the 2014 midterm elections approach, Republicans are feeling increasingly optimistic about their chances of winning a majority in the U.S. Senate, along with keeping control of the House of Representatives. And while there is reason to doubt that the current Republican plan of simply trashing the Affordable Care Act without even offering an alternative will persuade large numbers of voters, there’s no question that the electoral map strongly favors the GOP.
Still, there is one thing that could completely dash the Republicans’ electoral hopes: another protracted battle over raising the debt ceiling.
Despite the massive political damage the GOP sustained in October, when it forced a government shutdown and took the nation to the brink of debt default, many Republicans appear eager to once again hold the global economy hostage in another doomed effort to force concessions from Democrats when the limit must be raised again in February or March (Senate Democrats contend that Congress has a bit more time).
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) set the tone in December, when he vowed that “We don’t want nothing out of this debt limit.”
His stance has since been echoed by several members of Congress, such as influential conservative Rep. John Fleming (R-LA) — who suggested that the “debate is going to be over more cutting” from the budget — and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who promised a fight in the wake of the budget deal that took another government shutdown off the table.
“I doubt if the House or for that matter the Senate is willing to give the president a clean debt ceiling increase,” McConnell warned. “We’ll have to see what the House insists on adding to it as a condition for passing it.”
Here’s the problem for the GOP: No matter what the House insists on “adding to it as a condition,” the Democratic-controlled Senate and the White House will not accept it. Democrats, led by President Obama, made it abundantly clear in October that they would never again negotiate over a debt ceiling deal. McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) then confirmed that they don’t have to, by folding in the 25th hour and making it plain that they won’t actually allow the U.S. to default on its debt. When it comes to the debt limit, congressional Republicans have absolutely no leverage.
That doesn’t mean that they won’t force a confrontation anyway, however. After all, a startling number of Republican legislators — along with the voters who sent them to Washington — don’t appear to understand that the debt ceiling actually needs to be raised. If, like Congressmen Fleming, you don’t believe economists who warn that failing to pay our bills would lead to fiscal catastrophe, then you have no incentive not to force another crisis to prove to your right-wing constituents that you’re fighting the good fight against the Obama administration.
It’s difficult, however, to overstate how politically-disastrous another debt ceiling fight would be for the GOP (to say nothing of the economic damage that such a confrontation could cause). The last clash, which coincided with a government shutdown, left Republicans with historically awful poll numbers. Their numbers in the wake of the 2011 debt ceiling debate were hardly any better. In 2014 — with the American electorate already beyond fed up with Congress (and especially angry with the Republican House majority) — the fallout from yet another crisis would likely be even worse. Republicans were able to recover from their last flirtation with forcing economic catastrophe; if they launch another crisis just eight months before Election Day, they won’t be so lucky again. In a tight race (such as the ones shaping up in Arkansas, Alaska, and North Carolina, among other 2014 battlegrounds), such a misstep could be the difference between winning and losing.
Although many Republican politicians and voters clearly don’t understand the potential impact of another debt ceiling clash, GOP political strategists clearly do.
“When Republicans screw with the debt ceiling and threaten a government shutdown, their unfavorable ratings go up. When they talk about Obamacare, Democrats’ unfavorables go up,” veteran Republican consultant Mark McKinnon recently told The Hill.
Another strategist, who went unnamed in The Hill’s story, was even more blunt: “The only way you lose the House is if Dems intercept a Hail Mary pass on the debt ceiling.”
Republican politicians generally delight in ignoring the advice of their own party’s strategists. But in this case, they should absolutely listen — or they will pay the price in November.
Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr