Another Norm Down for the Count

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Jon Chait shakes his head at the S&P downgrade:

The “conclusion was pretty much motivated by all of the debate about the raising of the debt ceiling,” John Chambers, chairman of S&P’s sovereign ratings committee, said in an interview. “It involved a level of brinksmanship greater than what we had expected earlier in the year.”

Meanwhile, the political effects of the downgrade will primarily harm the Obama administration. So now the Obama administration is fiercely contesting S&P. In other words, a ratings agency has sensibly concluded that the Republican Party poses a long-term threat to the stability of the U.S. financial system, and the Obama administration insists otherwise….I understand the logic here, but it’s just a little odd for the Democratic-controlled Treasury Department to be pleading that the Republicans aren’t really dangerous maniacs at all.

I’ve been browsing through conservative websites tonight, and the amount of crowing over the “Obama downgrade” is really pretty remarkable. S&P made it crystal clear that brinksmanship over the debt ceiling was the reason for the downgrade, and Republicans not only provoked the brinksmanship and bragged about it for months, but have since gleefully promised to repeat their performance at every opportunity. And yet they’re now insisting that this is all Obama’s fault. It’s a display of chutzpah that’s shameless even by their standards.

So what does it all mean? Republicans have been very effective over the past couple of decades at breaking norms of behavior for partisan gain: mid-decade redistricting, the institutional filibuster, flat refusals to allow votes on executive appointments, and so forth. This time, there’s both a narrow norm and a broader norm they’ve broken. The narrow one, of course, is that the debt ceiling is an opportunity for a bit of routine invective on the House and Senate floors but nothing more. After the speeches are over the debt ceiling gets raised.

The broader norm they’ve broken is that you don’t abuse the obligation of responsibility that presidents inherently possess. This norm gets broken all the time in small ways: backbench congressman can demand that we bomb Iran, for example, and it’s brushed off as nothing serious. Likewise, presidential candidates can demand all manner of “getting tough” on China even though they know perfectly well that no sitting president could ever afford to follow through on the threats. But that stuff is mostly theater. This is different. The debt ceiling is a real, concrete thing with serious global implications, and Republicans knew all along that the guy in the Oval Office simply couldn’t afford to let it expire because he’s ultimately responsible for keeping things running. What’s more, because a president’s words are so much more important than anyone else’s, they also knew that he couldn’t even afford to fight back too hard. Markets would go crazy if he projected anything but a sense of calm confidence.

In the past, this has mostly been tacitly acknowledged, with opposition leaders reining in the bombthrowers when something serious enough was at stake. Not anymore. The president’s obligation of responsibility still limits his actions on the global stage, but now, instead of this representing an outer boundary that restrains partisan attacks, it’s just another political weakness to take advantage of. Needless to say, this is not a good sign in an allegedly mature democracy.

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