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Why debt is easier than guns: Obama’s twin challenges

Gun control fits the normal paradigm of a legislative negotiation. The debt ceiling is different, most Republicans know they must raise it — and that’s why Obama should have more success on debt than guns.

Barack Obama

Barack Obama was already facing a difficult time with Congress over the debt ceiling increase and the postponed “fiscal cliff” automatic budget cuts, but now he’s bought himself an additional fight in the shape of his plan for gun law reform. Both issues will be a test of his standing at the beginning of his second term.

In order to understand his prospects of success, however, it’s necessary to look at how the issues are significantly different.

Gun control fits the normal paradigm of a legislative negotiation. One side supports a policy proposal, the other is opposed to it. Most of the Republicans genuinely don’t want gun reform to pass (either because they genuinely believe it’s bad policy, or because they’re in hock to the gun lobbyists); most of the Democrats, for corresponding reasons, do.

That means that passage of the President’s measures will have to involve some combination of the usual tactics: changing people’s minds through persuasion; compromising on the detail of the proposals; picking off enough marginal legislators to cobble together a majority; offering a trade-off in some other area; using public opinion to pressure those who are worried about marginal seats. This is all pretty familiar stuff.

Even a routine legislative negotiation offers opportunities for playing “chicken”: opponents may vote for amendments that they don’t actually agree with in order to reduce the chance of the overall legislation being approved, or conversely vote against amendments that would water it down because they prefer their chances of defeating the original package. But both sides still understand what they’re dealing with, and their strategies can be rationally comprehended.

The debt ceiling negotiation, however, isn’t like this. If the ceiling is not lifted, the US government would apparently become legally unable to pay the bills it has already incurred. No one really knows what the effect of this would be, but it’s not likely to be good.

While a few Republicans may actually think that default is better than incurring any additional debt, that remains a fringe belief. For most of the GOP caucus, the debt ceiling is an opportunity to get other things they want (primarily, cuts in welfare spending) by threatening to do something that they admit would have bad consequences. So far, Obama is refusing to come to the party.

If they block gun control, Republicans are just doing what (in some sense) they think is right. But if they block a debt ceiling increase, they will be doing harm even by their own lights.

Hence the popular metaphor of hostage-taking used by many commentators —  Jon Chait is particularly fond of it. But that doesn’t quite capture it either (it could also now seem in poor taste in light of the bloodshed in Algeria).

A hostage-taker might prefer, other things being equal, not to have to shoot their hostages, but typically they are pretty much indifferent to the hostages’ welfare. That’s not the case here. The Republicans don’t want economic chaos; they’re willing to threaten it to get their way, but it’s a threat that they very much hope not to have to carry out.

If you’re looking for a metaphor, a better one would probably be nuclear deterrence. It’s one thing to threaten to push the button if the other side launches a conventional attack (indeed, that threat helped keep the peace in Europe for 40 years), but quite another thing to actually do it if the occasion ever arose.

That puts Obama in a much stronger position. When he argues that failure to pass gun reform will have harmful consequences, the Republicans can quite sincerely argue the contrary. But when he makes that argument about the debt ceiling, he’s saying something that most of them already agree with.

It also means that Obama’s position has improved since his re-election, as Nate Silver argued this week. Twelve months ago, economic chaos seemed a less scary prospect to the Republicans because it at least offered some prospect of hurting Obama for the upcoming election. Now they are the next ones to face the polls, so to some extent they have to own the economy.

That doesn’t mean the majority of Republicans are going to come around and vote for a debt ceiling increase. But they don’t have to; they just have to acquiesce in speaker John Boehner bringing it to a vote, where 20 or 30 moderate Republicans can vote with the Democrats to get it through. While it’s certainly not a done deal, that now looks more likely than not.

Gun reform could end up taking the same route, but it will be a much harder task.

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  • 1
    negativegearmiddleclasswelfarenow.com
    Posted Friday, 18 January 2013 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    Check this 30 minute video on You Tube ‘The Sandy Hook Shooting - Fully Exposed’ - posted four days ago with 8 million views and rising. Guns could prove to be an extreme challenge if this stuff is just half true.

  • 2
    Malcolm Street
    Posted Friday, 18 January 2013 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

    This stuff” is utter bullsh*t - it is the type of fringe nut conspiracy theory that comes out every time a gunman goes nuts (there were similar claims about Port Arthur). If you believe it you are sick, sick, sick. There’s plenty of other Sandy Hook conspiracy theories doing the rounds - scary bit is that those who most believe this crap are the ones who are most adamant about how they need guns.

    Charles - you’ve underestimated the pure batshit crazy element of the Republican party, and the power of the Tea Party at pre-election level. There’s plenty within the Tea Party who want a scorched earth USA to rebuild their no government society on. Note that over 60 Republicans voted against reconstruction aid to New Jersey!

  • 3
    negativegearmiddleclasswelfarenow.com
    Posted Friday, 18 January 2013 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

    @MS
    You’re the sort who would have disputed the United States Select Committee on Assassinations finding that JFK assassination was the result of a conspiracy and labelled them a bunch paranoid conspiracy theorists.

    A Warren Commission true believer. There’s none as blind as those who refuse to see.

  • 4
    Posted Friday, 18 January 2013 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    I thought Obama was seeking presidential authority to lift the debt ceiling, which would remove this particular bit of nonsense from Congress permanently.

  • 5
    Steve777
    Posted Saturday, 19 January 2013 at 12:01 am | Permalink

    But where did this debt come from? Republican George W Bush started two wars, one of which was fraudulent. He badly botched both of them. He put the cost on the national credit card for future Administrations / Generations to pay. Meanwhile, he introduced unaffordable tax cuts benefiting mainly the wealthy. He let Wall Street run amok, destroying much of the Nation’s and the World’s wealth. Meanwhile the pronouncements of prominent Republicans on Social issues from abortion, rpe, guns and World affairs seem to indicate that many of them are certifiable lunatics. Why would anyone take them seriously?

  • 6
    Malcolm Street
    Posted Saturday, 19 January 2013 at 8:18 am | Permalink

    Gavin - there’s an opinion that under (IIRC) the 14th Amendment he may have that authority.

  • 7
    Posted Saturday, 19 January 2013 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    @ Malcolm Street

    Thanx. I think I recall dimly that the President being recognised as already having the power to increase the US’ debt ceiling without Congressional approval depends on a favourable interpretation by the US Supreme Court, which apparently would not be assured. Having a Presidential decision struck down by the Supremes would undermine Presidential authority too much to risk, so better take the safer course of getting the agreement of Congress, so I understand the argument runs.

  • 8
    Charles Richardson
    Posted Saturday, 19 January 2013 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

    Malcolm - You’re right, there are certainly some very crazy Republicans. But the majority are only semi-crazy; while I’d say most of them still won’t vote for the debt ceiling increase, they’ll let it go thru.

    Malcolm & Gavin - As you say, there’s a flourishing legal debate on this. I don’t think Obama will want to do anything that isn’t clearly legal; even if he thinks he’d win in the supreme court, he won’t take the risk. If I’m wrong & the debt ceiling isn’t raised, he’ll probably have to resort to issuing IOUs.

  • 9
    Malcolm Street
    Posted Saturday, 19 January 2013 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

    Charles - the problem isn’t so much what the Republican representatives think, it’s what their local party organisations think. Too many of these are in the hands of the Tea Party - help let the debt ceiling increase through (even by abstaining) and goodby preselection.

  • 10
    Mike Flanagan
    Posted Sunday, 20 January 2013 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    Obama’s attempts to remedy the insanity of the American love of guns are to be commended but recognised for its minimalist attempt to rectify this social anomaly.
    The AR15 Assault Rifle that is readily available to their public is a direct evolution of the Armalite rifle that was developed as a high velocity, low calibre and short range means for their infantry to apply their ill-conceived strategy of ‘area neutralisation’, similar to how Mortars have been traditionally used.
    The user didn’t have to accurate aim the monster but fire in the general direction to affect major injuries to the intended victim because of the velocity of the projectile emitted.
    It has little or no value as either an accurate competitive rifle or for hunting, and why their public should have access to it with large capacity magazines is an indictment of the social values that many of the American public seem to hold dear to themselves.

  • 11
    Steve777
    Posted Sunday, 20 January 2013 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

    Making these assault weapons and high capacity magazines available to the general public makes as much sense as selling high explosives and missile launchers at Wal Mart. Does the US Constitution allow citizens to start their own war? Did the Founding Fathers intend that citizens be allowed stockpile cannons and gunpowder? Surely they were talking about State-based, well ordered militias for local defence, not nutjob loners creating personal arsenals. I just can’t see how anyone could think that US-style gun ownership makes sense.

  • 12
    Spike
    Posted Monday, 28 January 2013 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    I’m sad to see how America’s declined. “How the mighty has fallen + worse to come! Largest debtor nation in history + still hold that unenviable trophy! Obama is the end time president for ‘end time’ USA. His election win was due to certain platforms: detrimental to America’s social/family cohesion + her defense forces. Under his government: more of the same, only much worse, for a declining USA, descending into a shadow of that once great nation! USA’ll reduce her military presence worldwide + pull back to hunker down: ‘Fortress America’ style. America is broke. Past broke, she’s in a position of indebtedness like never before + as no nation has ever been! America’s race is almost over, unfortunately [I feel] she’s close to going the way of all mighty empires, nations governments etc. America simply won’t be able to pay her debtors, armed forces + public servants period. Her debtors will, when they see USA finally on her financial, trade, commercial + military ‘knees’: foreclose! Obama talks up a storm, challenges the Republicans to walk down his ‘crooked path’. Reality is he beats + walks to the beat of a drum that is sounding the death knell of a once great + benevolent nation! Compare his platform guff to what previous Presidents stood for! If it wasn’t [situation] so tragic + deadly serious it’d be a joke albeit a black one!

  • 13
    Spike
    Posted Monday, 28 January 2013 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    Tried to reply: wouldn’t let me?!

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