Debt ceiling crises are as periodic and predictable as El Niño. When the political atmosphere is plagued by the instability of a Republican Congress and a Democratic Presidency, one can expect ill winds to cross the land.
However, one big difference between global meteorological phenomena and U.S. politics is that there is no corresponding La Niña when the situation is reversed. In the closing, pre-auto-coup months of the Trump administration, there was no attempt by Democrats to leverage their House majority to force concessions from he-who-shall-not-be-named. Granted, to do so would be a fool’s errand because Donald Trump is mentally unable to concede anything to anybody. But also, Democrats themselves are averse to aggressive politics in any context, even when they hold an advantage. Joe Biden enjoyed Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress after the narrow Republican victory in the House after the 2022 midterm elections. The Democratic majority had the opportunity to increase the debt ceiling then or eliminate it altogether. The radical “chaos monkey” caucus in the incoming Republican Congress was clear that they were going to force draconian budget cuts as a ransom payment, forcing Democrats to choose between crashing the economy through defaulting or destroying the Biden agenda, which would also push the economy off a cliff, albeit a less steep one. The Republican party may be deluded in thinking that this would help them win votes and secure the one-party rule they have hankered after since the Gingrich days of the 1990s, but their hopes spring eternal and show no signs of fading. Given this clear warning, the Democrats chose to do nothing. And here we are.
While fecklessness is an abiding characteristic of the contemporary Democratic party, it is not the only way to understand their inaction. The Democrats’ habits of mind coax them into situations where they are victimized by the opposition’s “Heads I win, tails you lose” strategy. While this genial mindset is misbegotten, it is not exactly stupid either. In fact it is highly principled. The problem is that the principles no longer match our political situation, which paints Democrats into a corner from which it is difficult to emerge.
To paraphrase Alasdair MacIntyre, we are confronted with a choice: Thrasymachus or Socrates? In Plato’s…