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Why Democrats Won’t Negotiate [OPINION]

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President Obama and Senate Democrats have steadfastly refused to accept anything other than a clean Continuing Resolution to reopen the government and a no strings attached increase of the debt ceiling. They are completely justified in taking this stance, but it is a little surprising that they have held out this long.

Democrats in general, and the President in particular, don’t have a great track record when it comes to winning negotiations with Republicans. Even a casual look back at the President’s first term provides a handful of examples of their lack of prowess with these sorts of things.

Take the economic stimulus package for example. Obama and his former colleagues in the Senate were justifiably worried that Republicans would filibuster the bill, so they intentionally asked for less than what was needed in order to avoid having the total go over a trillion dollars. In order to get enough Republicans to sign on, they ended up cutting that number by more than a 100 billion and having half of the stimulus come in the form of tax cuts, which don’t give the same bang for the buck as infrastructure spending does. Democrats caved to Republicans before the negotiations even started, then caved some more, and the end result is we still have high unemployment more than 4 years later with no chance of getting another stimulus/jobs bill.

Obama similarly undercut his own position by stating that a public option wasn’t a crucial element to the Affordable Care Act in order to try to appease Republican moderates before the healthcare debate heated up. What was the end result? No public option, Republican pressure forced a number of cuts and changes in the final bill to get it by the filibuster, but not a single Republican voted for the ACA when it came to the floor. Again Democrats allowed Republicans to fleece them.

The example that is most explanatory to the current predicament came the last time the debt ceiling was raised. In the midst of a budget impasse, Republicans demanded that the debt ceiling would only be raised if a bipartisan Super Committee of deficit hawks was formed to make recommendations. If those suggestions weren’t adopted into law, then the Bush tax cuts would expire and the Sequester would come into effect.

At the time, Democrats believed that Republicans were negotiating in good faith. They believed that the GOP had just as much reason to avoid going over the fiscal cliff as Democrats did. They were wrong. John Boehner was quoted immediately after the deal was struck as saying he got “98%” of what he wanted.

Republicans had no interest in passing anything coming out of Super Committee that actually resembled compromise. So when the fiscal cliff did arrive, was it really a surprise that Boehner and company managed to hold on to the Sequester and even reduce the tax increase on the top bracket in exchange for allowing Democrats to keep the Bush tax cuts for everyone else? Gullible Democrats have allowed themselves to be outfoxed by Congressional Republicans at each turn. Their mistake was to have ever believed that the other side’s goal was anything other than creating a mess to attach to the President and harm Democratic chances in future elections.

To grasp why the Democrats have suddenly grown a spine, you have to understand how historically unprecedented that last debt ceiling negotiation was. Increases to the borrowing limit have historically been a non-controversial piece of legislation.

Whenever a President asked for one, all of his party, and if that party happened to be in the minority in one of the houses of Congress, enough of the other party made sure that the vote to increase the limit would easily pass. This would give the rest of the members of the opposition the opportunity to cast a symbolic vote against the debt limit increase, so that they have something to point to while touting their concern for balancing budgets. Obama himself did the same when he was planning to run for President and voted against a Bush era increase. It was all theater. At no point was there ever any chance that the debt ceiling might not be raised, and Democrats got no concessions from W in the process.

You may hear that raising the debt ceiling is often attached to a broader negotiation, and sometimes it was. If you take a real look at any piece of legislation you will find all kinds of things attached to various bills, many of which are completely unrelated to whatever the key issue was. And so it was with increasing the borrowing limit, an uncontroversial part of whatever hodgepodge of serious debates happened to make their ways into the same bill.

Asking for something substantial, like cuts the size of the Sequester, in return for increasing the debt limit, has never been used as a tactic until Boehner did so in 2011. Since he got what he wanted, what was to stop Boehner from doing the same thing again and again? The lesson from that episode was apparently not lost on Obama and the Democratic members of the Senate.

As soon as the dust had settled after the 2012 election, Republicans like Grover Norquist were calling on the House to keep the President “on a short leash” by only agreeing to raise the debt limit on a week by week basis in order to legislate from the minority. While there might not be anything specifically unconstitutional about this approach, you had better believe that the founders of our democratic republic would be rolling over in their graves if such a plan were ever put into place.

Our little experiment in democracy can only work if both parties agree that there is a duty to govern effectively, even when the most recent election results do not leave you in a position to legislate your platform. Democrats rightfully see the tactics of House Republicans for what they are, a threat to blow up the federal government and the world economy if they don’t get their way. Given that the issue at stake is nothing less than how the idea of majority rule should be implemented in our three branch style of government, we should all be thankful that Democrats are refusing to negotiate; the last few years show how inept they can be at doing so.

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