The Debt Ceiling Crisis Is Laying Bare the Lies Both Parties Tell Their Voters

Democrats want you to believe their commander-in-chief is an ultraprogressive master negotiator. The GOP wants you to believe they’re a newly reborn party of the working class. The never-ending debt ceiling standoff reveals just how absurd both tales are.

President Joe Biden shakes hands with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy before delivering his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress, on February 7, 2023 in the House Chamber of the US Capitol in Washington, DC. (Jacquelyn Martin-Pool / Getty Images)

The political narratives fed to the US public by the two major parties and mainstream media often have so little to do with reality that political coverage can amount to little more than a boxing match between phantoms. But every now and then, you get a flash point that makes clear just how much of a careful pretense the whole thing is. This is the case with the interminable debt ceiling negotiations on Capitol Hill that are right now reaching their dreary climax.

Up to now, the public has been told that US politics in the 2020s is an existential contest between two forces. On one side, there’s President Joe Biden, who’s a cross between Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, newly converted to progressive, even radical politics, with the legislative and dealmaking skills honed over decades in the Senate to make them actually happen. On the other, there’s a Republican Party that, like Biden, has realized the error of its Reaganite ways and has now become the party of the working class, renouncing its years of ruthless neoliberalism to now take on corporate power and the military-industrial complex for the benefit of the average working American.

Neither of these narratives ever matched reality, but the debt ceiling standoff has made them completely untenable. Take the Republicans. Led by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, the GOP is, as per usual, using the debt ceiling deadline to extract painful concessions from Biden and the Democrats, threatening to dent US government credit and plunge its economy into crisis if they don’t get their way.

And what demands are this newly populist, working-class Republican Party holding the US economy to ransom over? Perhaps the GOP wants to institute the fifteen-dollar minimum wage Biden promised but never signed into law? Or the public health insurance option Biden simply dropped, to end the gross injustices of the United States’ corporate-controlled health care sector?

No, McCarthy and the GOP want to make it harder for the poor to get financial assistance from the government, specifically by putting onerous work requirements on a number of government programs, including Medicaid, that in practice fail at their ostensible goals and end up simply denying benefits to people. They also want major spending cuts that would negatively impact just about every agency and program — that is, everything but the astronomical and wasteful military budget, much of which ends up in the pockets of military-contractor executives. Mind you, this is a climbdown from their initial plan to make deep cuts to Medicare, Social Security, and almost every part of the US social safety net.

Nevertheless, you can bet that even though the GOP is very publicly using this monumental bit of leverage for an attack on the working class, this won’t remotely deter it from continuing to shamelessly parade around as the party fighting for that same working class.

Meanwhile, Biden, the supposed master negotiator, has proven incapable of breathing the spirit of compromise into the GOP as he’d once promised his mere presence in the White House would do. This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who’s observed Washington politics since at least the Barack Obama years — when, incidentally, Biden had been the vice president negotiating with those same Republicans.

After pledging not to budge on their demands and playing chicken for months, in the end, Biden blinked, and he’s now haggling with Republicans over just how deep the cuts he’ll be forced to make will be and which programs will have extra work requirements added on. As it stands, Biden — the president we’ve been incessantly told is going to transform the American economy in the manner of the New Deal and Great Society programs — is looking instead like he’ll preside over cuts to the already-lacerated US welfare state, at the same time that he’s already chosen to preside over a major shrinkage of government support that had first been widened under Donald Trump during the pandemic.

So much for those Rooseveltian ambitions. Luckily, the president very carefully chose his words last year when he promised that he would “not yield” to Republican demands, but mentioned only Medicare and Social Security — leaving the door open for other cuts. Three cheers for technicalities.

Just like with the Republicans, you can bet none of this will stop a phalanx of media personalities from continuing to tell us about how fantastic and full of progressive accomplishments Biden’s tenure has been, even as polls show that a majority of people fully understand they’re being told that hot is cold and up is down.

There Is an Alternative

However this all ends up, it’s important to understand that none of this had to happen. We shouldn’t let party loyalists rewrite history, like how they retconned the willful failures of Obama’s presidency as unavoidable inevitabilities that the president was simply forced to accept.

For one, this entire thing could have been avoided months ago, when even a centrist Democrat like Representative Jim Clyburn suggested simply abolishing the debt ceiling entirely while the party still controlled the House. It was a sound idea: the debt ceiling is a historical and technical quirk that makes the United States fairly unique on the world stage. But Biden personally nixed the idea of abolishing it, calling it “irresponsible.” (By contrast, letting plutocratic radicals constantly threaten to tank the US economy is, presumably, the height of responsibility).

But even now, Biden has options. He could use a provision in a little-known 1997 law to authorize the Treasury to simply mint a $1 trillion coin (or of any denomination, for that matter) and deposit it with the Federal Reserve. Though it sounds wacky, it’s an idea that’s gained considerable purchase in recent years, drawing the backing of serious, non-radical economists, legal scholars, a former director of the US Mint, and even Bloomberg Businessweek. Biden has even gotten an unlikely assist from likely 2024 opponent Trump, who said in 2016 that the United States could never default on its debt since it can simply “print the money.”

There are some reasonable concerns about the idea, like that it could spook financial markets or that it’s only a temporary work-around, since the inevitable next debt ceiling standoff would bring us back to the exact same place, requiring another minting of a trillion-dollar-or-more coin. Less valid are the objections based on reputational damage to the United States from such a silly solution or that it would be politically unpopular, since a US debt default — or, at least in the eyes of ordinary voters, painful spending cuts — would be magnitudes worse on both counts.

But okay, let’s say this solution isn’t ideal. Biden could also invoke the Fourteenth Amendment, with its clause that “the validity of the public debt of the United States . . . shall not be questioned,” potentially letting the president simply ignore the debt ceiling and continue borrowing. It’s another idea that’s been written off as too cute for its own good, but has the backing of serious legal scholars, including one who had previously written the idea off, since a US default would severely harm US creditworthiness. Maybe more importantly, in a repeat of last year’s calls to abolish the debt ceiling, it’s now being urged by a rising chorus of elected Democratic officials and allies: not just big-name progressives like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Ed Markey, but even the centrist Dick Durbin.

The potential downside is that it would, in the end, hinge on the decision of the most radical right-wing collection of judges in generations, shifting the standoff from one between the White House and Congress, to one between the White House and the Supreme Court. But as Senator John Fetterman said yesterday, “if our unelected Supreme Court Justices try to block the use of the 14th amendment and blow up our economy, that’s on them.”

It’s not a bad battle to pick: the Supreme Court’s public standing is already in the toilet, and the court is already in crisis thanks to a worsening corruption scandal that’s now embroiled the highly public image-conscious chief justice. Why not dare it to take the blame for sinking the US economy?

If Biden does this or any of the other recently proposed solutions, it would make up for his failure to simply nip this in the bud last year when Democrats still controlled Congress, and might even help rescue his presidency. But if, out of an antiquated obsession with institutionalism and decorum, he succumbs to the demands of the “party of the working class” to eviscerate the poor, don’t let them tell you he couldn’t have done anything different.