As Congress wrestled with whether and how to raise the country’s debt ceiling this past week, most of the declared GOP presidential hopefuls urged Republicans in Congress to stand firm against the debt deal. It was an extraordinary moment: The GOP, a party that has always marketed itself as being the “fiscally responsible” political institution, was now wholeheartedly embracing the notion of economic chaos as a political force-multiplier, as a way to shore up its electoral base and ram home its ideological priorities in a usually hide-bound Washington, D.C.
This wasn’t the party of Dwight Eisenhower or Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan or George H.W. Bush — at least some of whom might have embraced irresponsible tax-cutting-deficit-increasing policies, but all of whom were adamant that ways had to be found to honor the debts that the United States was rapidly accruing.
Instead, it was the party of the provocateur — of the Representatives Matt Gaetzes and Marjorie Taylor Greenes of the world. It was the party willing to gamble with the U.S. economy, with the pension investments and Social Security payments of tens of millions of elderly Americans, with the college accounts of millions of families, with the jobs of millions of workers — all of which are reliant on stable markets, and all of which were particularly vulnerable to the wild oscillations in stock and bond markets that would surely follow even a short-term U.S. default.
There were, of course, many progressive reasons to be suspicious of the deal: politicians such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie Sanders opposed supporting a bill that implemented workfare requirements for millions of middle-aged SNAP recipients, ended the pause on student loan repayments, sped up the permitting of fossil fuel leases and imposed overall caps on non-military government spending for the next two years.
There was the fury many progressives felt that the GOP had succeeded in manufacturing a crisis around the debt ceiling, and had then used that crisis — and the attendant risk of a global financial meltdown — to force President Joe Biden to negotiate away benefits to millions of low-income people in the U.S. Ultimately, 40 members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus voted against the bill.
Elsewhere, progressive economists such as James K. Galbraith urged President Biden to walk away from the negotiations and, if necessary, to invoke the language of the 14th Amendment to simply bypass the GOP’s hostage-taking strategy and unilaterally give permission for the Department of Treasury to continue borrowing the money needed to keep the government functioning. But instead of exploring these options, Biden let the Republicans set the terms for avoiding default.
Despite extracting many cuts from Democrats, large numbers of Republicans were outraged. For them, the package negotiated between Biden’s and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s teams didn’t cut nearly enough social programs, protected too much of the country’s public health infrastructure and didn’t slash promised additional spending on the Internal Revenue Service enough. It didn’t end Biden’s efforts to roll back student debt or overturn Biden’s centerpiece legislation on investments to mitigate the climate crisis. Dozens of members of the ultra-hard right House Freedom Caucus came out against the bill.
Members of the cluster of GOP presidential hopefuls took the lead in crafting opposition to the measure. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis made sure to get ahead of the pack, saying, pretty much as soon as the broad contours of the agreement became known, that it was a bad deal and would do nothing to solve the country’s debt problem.
Since declaring his presidential candidacy just over a week ago, Governor DeSantis, whose polling numbers have actually declined this past couple weeks, has pushed to define himself as to the right of Trump. He has critiqued the ex-president for not standing up to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regarding shutting down the country in March 2020 and also for signing into law some limited criminal justice system reforms. On the debt negotiations, the governor sought to get a jump on his Florida compadre by going straight for the political jugular and urging House members to vote down the deal.
South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott opined that because he opposed suspending the debt ceiling through early 2025, he too would oppose the deal. Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley came out against the notion of growing the debt, though she didn’t explicitly say that she would have voted against a deal and thus, implicitly, in favor of default. Former Vice President Mike Pence similarly hemmed and hawed, speaking out against the deal without saying out loud that he would have voted in a way likely to trigger a U.S. debt default. Ultra-longshot candidate and biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, by contrast, said he ”absolutely” would have voted down the deal.
There were two exceptions: The first was Asa Hutchinson, the relatively moderate ex-governor of Arkansas, who is likely going nowhere in the presidential contest. Hutchinson made the ritualistic statement that the bill wasn’t perfect, but then went on to say that the country had to resolve this issue. The implication was that, when push came to shove, even while sniping about it, he would support any bill that allowed the country to avoid a default.
Hutchinson was staking his claim to what remains of the moderate Republican bloc, putting the back-and-forth of political compromise above absolutism. That might have been the honorable thing to do, but it’s hardly likely to endear him to an increasingly hard right, and the not-in-the-mood-for-compromise GOP base. In fact, he’s polling at 1 percent support among likely primary voters.
The second exception was former President Donald Trump himself. During the CNN town hall forum in May, he basically threw his weight behind the idea of a default, refusing multiple opportunities to declare that he would always honor U.S. debt obligations. Trump was now, all of a sudden, more pragmatic.
For much of the week, Trump kept silent, presumably hedging his bets. Then, when it became clear that Speaker McCarthy was going to be able to muscle the vote through the House, Trump told his supporters the deal that McCarthy had negotiated with the White House was going to pass, and that it could be improved upon over the coming years — while also, in true Trumpian two-faced fashion, telling them that had he been in a position of power he would have let the country default.
In not explicitly demanding that his die-hard supporters vote against the legislation, Trump helped sew up a McCarthy victory, and thus ensured that the House speaker would owe him yet more than he already did — chips that Trump will be sure to call in during next year’s primary season.
For a man as mercurial as Trump is, he’s actually playing it safe on the debt. He can plausibly claim both to be against the bill and also to have given his tacit consent to enough Republicans to vote for the bill to ensure that the U.S. didn’t default on its debt.
Meanwhile, his challengers spiral ever-further to the right. In out-Trumping Trump with the base, these challengers may have won a few laurels from their hardline primary voters, but it’s hard to see how any of them will have strengthened their appeal to general election voters by embracing debt default as a positive solution to the nation’s fiscal woes.
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