Progressives Pivot on the Advisability of Government Shutdowns

Until this week anyone on the left talking about a government shutdown was doing so to paint Republicans as irresponsible extremists willing to put at risk the “full faith and credit” of America for partisan gain. But when progressive darling Elizabeth Warren announced she would fight the so-called Cromnibus bill, suddenly risking government shutdowns was a great idea.

If you’ve been paying any attention at all in the last 3 years, you’ve probably heard some of the overheated rhetoric from progressives about debt ceiling negotiations. There is actually far too much of this to possibly recount at one sitting but it’s necessary to appreciate how pervasive and longstanding it is to really appreciate the sudden reversal yesterday.

References to the GOP acting as hostage takers began as early as 2010 with President Obama himself, but this rhetoric became more common during the first negotiations on a budget bargain in 2011. Van Jones said at the time, “Any faction in America that would put a gun to the head of 310 million people and say if you don’t do it our way we’ll blow your dreams away…that is un-american.” The NY Times published an op-ed about the budget battle which opened, “You know what they say: Never negotiate with terrorists.” It went on to accuse the GOP of waging jihad using “suicide vests.” Democrats including the Vice President agreed during a private meeting on Capitol Hill that Republicans were negotiating like “terrorists.”

This language has continued every time anyone uses the debt ceiling as a negotiation tactic. In 2013, Harry Reid referred to GOP “anarchists” and hostage takers. And of course the progressive media fell in line. The only real debate was whether the GOP were more like terrorists than hostage takers. The Daily Beast‘s Michael Tomasky preferred the former, “What they’re doing here is not hostage taking, the most commonly used metaphor in the media. It’s political terrorism.” Here’s President Obama in 2013 sounding only slightly more moderate:

We’re not going to do this under the threat of blowing up the entire economy…I don’t know how I can be more clear about this. Nobody gets to threaten the full faith and credit of the United States just to extract political concessions. No one gets to hurt our economy and millions of innocent people just because there are a couple of laws that you do not like…I’m not going to start setting a precedent not just for me, but for future Presidents where one chamber in Congress can basically say each time there needs to be a vote to make sure Treasury pays its bills, we’re not going to sign it unless our particular hobbyhorse gets advanced.

In theory then, risking a government shutdown over a “particular hobby horse” is a very bad thing. At least it was until yesterday when progressive darling Elizabeth Warren, who the far left is eager to draft as a candidate for 2016, announced she was going to oppose the Cromnibus bill–which the White House supported–because of a rider dealing with her particular hobbyhorse.

Suddenly, but not unexpectedly, progressives didn’t want to talk about hostage taking or terrorists or the horrors of a government shutdown or the threat to the full faith and credit of America. Instead, precisely as if the last 3 years had never happened, they all wanted to talk calmly and rationally about the differences which supposedly make Warren’s shutdown threat so very different.

The New Republic’s Brian Beutler, who has been a longtime fan of hostage metaphors and who was against shutdown threats as recently as August, announced that Sen. Warren was indeed risking a shutdown and suggested President Obama should join her. Indeed, Warren even used the same blame-the-other-guy verbal gymnastics which Beutler recently mocked as a “devastatingly clever rhetorical trick.” According to Beutler, here’s why Warren’s move definitely isn’t akin to terrorism or hostage taking:

The crucial difference is that last year, Cruz and his supporters in the House of Representatives, were demanding the inclusion of a contentious, extraneous policy rider in a spending bill as the price for keeping the government open. Warren, Pelosi, and other Democrats are trying to remove such a rider, not to insert it.

Vox’s Matt Yglesias took another stab at this excuse today. What this argument boils down to is this: We’re now supposed to believe that years of progressive outrage over the implied threat of the debt ceiling not being raised wasn’t really about the debt ceiling at all. It was really about progressives deep, abiding respect for existing law. The difference between a smart political move and an outrageous act of political terrorism is whether it is done to preserve an existing law.

In order to believe this you’d have to believe that if Republicans had threatened a government shutdown to, for instance, preserve the Bush tax cuts, progressives would have given them a thumbs up. Oh sure, they’d still have been against the tax cuts as a matter of policy, but the shutdown threat itself? They would have been just fine with it. Because as we now know, threatening a government shutdown in defense of existing law is not extremism.

Over at the Washington Post, Sean Sullivan has a much harder time finding the difference between progressive’s bête noire Ted Cruz and their beloved Elizabelth Warren. After noting that they are basically doing the same thing in the same way with debt ceiling as the same implied threat he writes, “there is no evidence yet that Warren is willing to go quite that far.” In other words, maybe Warren is bluffing. That might make a more plausible excuse for progressives looking to ignore everything they’ve said about the threat of government shutdowns for the past four years.