The nuances of debt-ceiling hypocrisy

Updated
 

When we talk about the looming debt-ceiling crisis, as we did yesterday, I invariably get emails from more conservative readers reminding me that President Obama, when he was Senator Obama, voted against a debt-limit increase, too. Indeed, Dave Weigel noted this clip the other day, which the RNC seemed quite excited about.

For those who can’t watch clips online, ABC News’ Jake Tapper pressed White House Press Secretary Jay Carney about the fact that Obama, during his Senate tenure, voted against the Bush/Cheney administration’s debt-ceiling increases, so the president is hardly in a position to criticize congressional Republicans now.

Carney responded, “There was no threat of default at the time.”

Is this explanation compelling? Actually, yes. Indeed, it’s precisely why the talk of Obama hypocrisy falls short.

Let’s back up for a minute because context offers a more informative picture. Between 1939 and 2010, Congress raised the debt limit 89 times. It was an easy, routine bit of legislative paperwork. But in those 89 instances, the congressional votes were hardly unanimous – lawmakers would routinely use debt-ceiling votes for good ol’ fashioned grandstanding, complaining about the fiscal habits of the president in office at the time.

Democrats did this under Republican presidents, and Republicans did this under Democratic presidents. The grandstanding was about as predictable and habitual as, well, routine increases to the debt ceiling itself.

But those voting against debt-ceiling increases prior 2011, regardless of party, weren’t trying to force a default, weren’t trying to crash the economy, weren’t trying to hold the nation hostage in exchange for a non-negotiable demand, and weren’t trying to trash the full faith and credit of the United States in a pique of partisan rage. They were grandstanding in the most harmless and inconsequential way possible. It’s exactly what Obama did when he was a senator and he’s hardly alone.

In 2011, everything changed.

Congressional Republicans decided pontificating and chest thumping was no longer enough – they turned the procedural homework into a weapon. There was always the possibility of radicalized lawmakers doing this between 1939 and 2010, but never before were elected officials prepared to hurt America on purpose.

Last year, GOP policymakers made a choice no one in either party ever seriously considered. They declared, without apology, that they would deliberately act against the nation’s interests, regardless of the consequences, unless a ransom was paid.

Did Obama vote against the debt-ceiling increase, knowing the debt-ceiling would be raised anyway? Yes. Did he push the nation towards default, threaten to crash the economy on purpose, and hold the nation hostage? No.

With this in mind, to equate Obama’s vote with the unprecedented Republican extortion overlooks every relevant detail. The president, before he was president, wasn’t prepared to hurt the country on purpose unless he got his way. Congressional Republicans, last year and this year, insist they are prepared to hurt the country on purpose unless they get their way.

These are not the same thing.

Debt

The nuances of debt-ceiling hypocrisy

Updated