Did Biden out-negotiate McCarthy?

I’m still trying to get my head around what happened with the debt ceiling.

Is the proposed deal a win for Biden and the Democrats?  

The conventional wisdom is that it was.  Catherine Rampell argues that the Republicans achieved little in the way of policy that they could not have gotten through the regular budget process.  They also failed to take away any of Biden’s signature policy victories. 

There are some questions about whether the deal is really such a clear win for the Democrats and how it will interact with budgeting rules this coming fall, but let’s run with this story for a bit.  Assume Biden won the negotiation with McCarthy. 

This just raises more questions.  How did Biden fight off Republican demands for spending cuts, especially given that he signaled uneasiness about using extraordinary measures and that his re-election prospects would probably be damaged if a default hurt the economy? 

One possibility is that Biden just outfoxed McCarthy.  Well, maybe.  Negotiating skill counts for something.  But mostly how well you do in a negotiation is determined by the strength of your negotiating position:  it is usually better to play a strong hand with middling skill than to try bluffing your way to victory with bad cards.  And Biden’s hand seemed weak, given that 1) he appeared reluctant to use unconventional tactics to avoid default, 2) he was running for re-election and his most likely opponent would not be blamed for a damaging default, and 3) he is not a sociopath who is indifferent to the suffering that a default might cause. 

It is possible that Biden’s negotiating position was strengthened by the fact that McCarthy knew he would need Democratic votes to get any deal through the House, but this doesn’t obviously account for a deal that is not much better than Republicans could have achieved through the ordinary budget process (again, assuming this for the sake of argument).

Were Republicans just doing Kabuki theater?

Maybe Republicans were highly averse to triggering a default or never expected to gain much from the negotiations.  In other words, the entire episode may have been an elaborate piece of political theater.  Perhaps it was staged for the benefit of the most extreme House Republicans.  Or perhaps it was a charade intended to protect most incumbent Republicans from primary challenges by putting on a show for base voters.

Kabuki and quiet diplomacy

President Biden has avoided publicly claiming victory in the debt negotiations:

“Look, one of the things that I hear some of you guys saying is, ‘Why doesn’t Biden say what a good deal it is?’” Biden said on the South Lawn of the White House. “Why would Biden say what a good deal it is before the vote? You think that’s going to help me get it passed? No. That’s why you guys don’t bargain very well.”

The benefits of public diffidence seem clear in the current situation.  The House Republican leadership is whipping votes and needs to be able to claim a victory in private discussions and in the court of public opinion.  Having Biden gloating in public would hardly be helpful. 

This same logic may have applied during the negotiations themselves, especially if Biden knew or suspected that most Republicans wanted to find a face-saving way to back down.  In this case the silent approach would have made sense, not because public appeals by the President never matter, but because keeping quiet made sense in this particular set of circumstances. 

On the other hand, if the Republicans were serious about extracting substantive policy concessions from Biden, a more forceful communications strategy by Biden might have been helpful.  The purpose would not have been to persuade voters to change their policy preferences, which is difficult to do, but to persuade voters that Biden was in fact supporting the solution that they favored – seeking a reasonable compromise and avoiding a default.  Recall that Biden was very successful at getting Republicans to back away from Social Security and Medicare cuts.

Did Republicans establish the legitimacy of debt limit extortion?

Another idea floating around is that Republicans “won” because what they really wanted was to establish the legitimacy of debt limit extortion.  I find this implausible.  I do not believe that the legitimacy of using the debt limit for leverage can be established once and for all.  Even if the circumstances this year would have allowed Biden to stick to his “no negotiation” position (which never seemed plausible to me), this would not establish a precedent that would bind future Presidents or increase their negotiating power when faced with another debt ceiling hostage situation.  Today’s Republicans relish blowing up norms and precedents.