The White House and its press corps have come to a consensus that the recent shutdown/debt limit debate was a “manufactured crisis”–the implication being that it was manufactured by Republicans. That is untrue–first because President Barack Obama and the Democrats could easily have averted a crisis if they had been willing to compromise, and second because forcing such confrontations has been their strategy since 2011.
The debt limit was not a priority for the Tea Party until the Democrats made it one. In the 2010 elections, the subject almost never came up. There was certainly no plan to shut down the government if the Republicans did not get their way. Rather, interest in these confrontations came from the Democrats and the Obama administration, who saw the 1995-6 crises as models for how to defeat congressional Republicans.
That is why, as the 112th Congress took office, Secretary of the Treasury Tim Geithner sent new Speaker John Boehner a letter warning of the consequences of failing to raise the debt limit. The new Congress had no plans to block an increase. But like George Stephanopoulos’s infamous question about contraception early in the 2012 Republican presidential debates, Geithner’s letter intended to make the debt limit an issue.
At the same time that Geithner was highlighting the debt ceiling, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) was doing all he could to goad Republicans into shutting down the government. The new Congress had barely taken their seats when he accused them of trying to force a confrontation over the continuing resolution to fund the government–a measure necessary only because the last Congress had not resolved the federal budget.
Yet again and again, the supposedly confrontational Tea Party caucus passed continuing resolutions, raised the debt limit, and resigned itself to deals that shunted its policy priorities aside. Did the president and the Democrats reward the Republicans for cooperation? Of course not. Earlier this year, when the GOP voted to raise the debt ceiling, Schumer gloated: “The president stared down the Republicans. They blinked.”
The Republicans did not avoid every confrontation, of course. In 2011, the new House majority took up the debt ceiling issue because it saw an opportunity to address the country’s long-term budget problems–and so did President Obama, who tried to push Republican leaders to accept higher taxes, scuttling a “grand bargain.” In 2012, the GOP fought the fiscal cliff because Obama deferred the issue until after the election.
Throughout 2013, there had been plenty of time to deal with fiscal issues. But while the House and Senate passed parallel budgets (the Senate for the first time in years), President Obama sent new Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew on a nationwide tour blasting Republicans (back in Washington) that they dare not fail to raise the debt limit. Lew gave the same speech in August (Silicon Valley) that he gave in May (Cleveland).
Along the way, Lew repeatedly used the term “manufactured crisis” to describe the budget sequester–“harsh, indiscriminate spending cuts…reckless, across-the board reductions” that the White House itself had proposed as part of the Budget Control Act of 2011. Inadvertently, then, Lew correctly claimed credit for the Obama administration in manufacturing a crisis–in the course of manufacturing a new one.
Republicans took the bait, partly because the new budget and debt limit deadlines coincided with the rollout of Obamacare. Democrats described Obamacare as an “unrelated” issue, but the effect of Obamacare on the government’s long-term debt was a key reason that the Bowles-Simpson recommendations for budget reform foundered in 2010. “Defunding” was near-impossible, but Democrats rejected even a useful delay.
On Thursday morning, the leaders of the budget process in the House and Senate put on an impressive show of civility, pledging to work together. But they had not conferenced since 2009 because Democrats did not want to compromise. They wanted a fight, to produce exactly the triumphalist lecture President Obama delivered. This was indeed a “manufactured crisis.” It is the only thing this president knows how to produce.