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The weak case for blaming Dems for the GOP’s debt ceiling crisis

Amidst “both sides” chatter in the debt ceiling fight, the tricky part is identifying what, exactly, Democrats have done to warrant blame.


As the dangerous debt ceiling deadline draws closer, there’s a reflexive push in some circles to blame “both sides.” In fact, earlier this month, independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona was explicit on this point, telling CBS News’ Margaret Brennan that “both parties” bear responsibility.

The idea is obviously at odds with reality, but the public is embracing it anyway: The latest Washington Post/ABC News poll, for example, found that Americans would blame a debt ceiling crisis on congressional Republicans and President Joe Biden in roughly equal measure.

The tricky part is identifying what, exactly, Democrats have done to warrant blame.

One of the more common criticisms is that Democrats controlled the White House and Congress for two years, and they should’ve dealt with the debt ceiling before radicalized Republicans took control of the House. It’s not an unreasonable point — if it were up to me, Democrats would have eliminated the debt ceiling statute altogether — but it’s not quite that simple.

The fact of the matter is that Democrats did raise the debt ceiling before the GOP took over the House, but not after the 2022 midterm elections. Why not?

Because they didn’t have the votes. A debt ceiling increase would’ve needed 60 votes in the Senate, and there was no way 10 Republicans would’ve gone along with such a move. Democrats could’ve tried to go around the GOP by using the budget reconciliation process, but that would’ve required unanimity among Senate Democrats, which didn’t exist: Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia rejected the idea during the post-election lame-duck session.

But there’s also a problem with the premise of the criticism: Republicans chose to effectively light the fuse on a default bomb that threatens our collective wellbeing. GOP officials knew exactly how dangerous this would be, but they launched the radical extortion scheme anyway.

To argue, “Well, maybe Democrats should’ve hid the Republicans’ lighter” is to deny the GOP any sense of agency. It’s Republicans who made a conscious choice to impose this crisis on us.

The even more common criticism is that Democratic leaders were too slow in agreeing to participate in talks. A deeply unfortunate New York Times analysis summarized the broader dynamic this way over the weekend:

Democrats lambaste Republicans for taking the debt ceiling hostage to appease “extreme MAGA” conservatives bent on shrinking government spending. Republicans hit Democrats for waiting too long to open talks and not taking G.O.P. demands seriously.

This is, to be sure, a popular line among Republicans, who, on a nearly daily basis, insist Democrats waited months to engage in negotiations. By GOP leaders’ reasoning, the lengthy delay “threatens default.”

That’s ridiculous.

Part of the problem is that Republicans spent months effectively demanding that Democrats pay the GOP a ransom, while failing to fill out their ransom note. It wasn’t until late April — less than a month ago — when House Republicans passed a right-wing bill, and bipartisan talks began soon after.

But again, it’s the premise that’s bizarre. It’s as if a group of hostage takers were to argue, “We called to arrange a meeting in which you could tell us about the ransom you’ll pay, and you let the phone ring too many times, so really it’s your fault if we hurt the hostages we took.”

This need not be complicated: Republicans created this crisis. They’re threatening to impose a catastrophe on us if their demands aren’t met. Democrats, in contrast, have never engaged in these tactics, and they’ve pleaded with GOP leaders to take default off the table — pleas that Republicans have rejected.

To consider this a “both sides” story is bonkers.