Jonathan Chait

John Boehner's Double Bluff

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John Boehner has released his ransom note for raising the debt ceiling, and it is "trillions" in spending cuts. He's bluffing, and not just in the way you think. The obvious bluff is his supposed willingness to permanently hamper the Treasury's ability to borrow money, something he's been privately assuring Wall Street he won't really do even while leveraging his supposed willingness to carry out the threat.

On top of that, the demand itself is a bluff. Boehner says he wants to cut trillions, which would have to entail cutting Social Security and Medicare. Boehner does not want to cut Social Security and Medicare. Oh, sure, he wants them to be cut. But he does not want to be the one who cuts them. He wants a bipartisan agreement in which President Obama provides him with cover to cut Medicare. He does not want to trade revenue increases for these cuts, which means Obama won't accept them. But he's hoping the threat of a shutdown can force Obama to accede to a deal he doesn't like.

It seems to me that Obama's play here is clear: He needs to ask Boehner to spell out his demands. What's the exact bill that Boehner demands as a condition for not crippling the U.S. economy? If he wants to make demands, he needs to write out those demands.

I don't think Boehner will do it. Boehner got through the government shutdown by cutting billions, not trillions, which allowed him to focus on small-bore programs and programs that only benefit the poor or vulnerable. But if he wants to cut trillions, then he faces real political peril.

Boehner is trying to get around this problem by doing two things at once. He is placating his base by using a hostage strategy to force Obama to make concessions he doesn't like. But he also wants Obama to lend him cover to make highly unpopular spending cuts. Obama would be crazy to go along with that. If Boehner wants to take hostages and demand some Medicare cuts, then he needs to say what those cuts are. if he wants to make a deal, then he needs to let the hostage go.

But if he wants to hold the debt ceiling hostage for a budget deal, then Obama should force him to say exactly what he needs in order to raise the debt ceiling. If he refuses to say, Obama needs to tell Wall Street that the negotiations are dead until Boehner puts something specific on the table. If Boehner puts a real plan on the table, Obama can go to the public and say this is what the Republicans are demanding. Allowing Boehner to simultaneously make exorbitant demands, refrain from spelling out those demands, and try to gain bipartisan cover for those demands would be a preposterously weak move by Obama. He can't possibly be that weak a negotiator. Can he?

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