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How Biden Lost the Debt-ceiling Fight and Republicans Finally Became the ‘Smart Party’

President Joe Biden at the White House on May 9, 2023. Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

For most of the 30 years I’ve been working on federal budget policy in Washington, Republicans have been described as “the stupid party.”     

The discussion has always run the same course: The GOP has allowed Democrats to outmaneuver and out-message them. That’s been true when there were Republican presidents and Democratic congresses or when there were Democratic presidents and Republican congresses. 

Voters (and most of the media) almost always blamed the ensuing chaos, the crises and the government shutdowns on those cold-hearted Republicans who wanted to throw grandma over the cliff, as so effectively portrayed in a 2012 Democratic campaign ad. 

Until now. 

In today's debt standoff, Republicans are winning or at least more successfully holding their own in the public relations battle. A recent Wall Street Journal poll found that nearly half of those sampled favor cutting federal spending instead of borrowing more money. Similar numbers of Americans in other polls want spending cuts to reduce the debt as a condition for raising the debt ceiling. A third to half of all voters, depending on the poll, believe the $31 trillion of red ink is so dangerously out of control that they don’t want the debt ceiling raised at all or want significant spending cuts. 

Importantly, they also blame both sides nearly equally for the situation, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll.

How did the Biden White House bungle this debate on the future of the nation’s finances?

First, it underestimated how angry voters are about the tidal wave of $6 trillion of new debt and spending under President Biden — much of it enacted after the COVID crisis had peaked or ended altogether. Understandably, voters have a hard time grasping how gargantuan these numbers really are. Who among us can tell the difference between a billion and a trillion dollars? But many of them — anywhere from 70% to 80% or more in various polls — have an innate, financially conservative instinct that things are going horribly wrong in Washington. And they’re right. We need a course correction. 

Second, the Biden administration and the Democratic leaders in Congress made a big gamble that newly elected House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) wouldn’t be able to rally his narrow majority in Congress to pass any debt ceiling bill. But McCarthy and House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) put a commonsense proposal on the table that all but two House Republicans could support.

It was a come-to-Jesus moment for House Republicans, and for once they put aside petty differences and collectively voted “aye.” McCarthy persuaded them this was the best way to marginalize and then defeat Biden. 

Third, the president apparently was persuaded by his more left-leaning advisers that, rather than move to the middle and “triangulate” — as President Bill Clinton did so brilliantly to save his presidency during his famous budget showdown with then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) in the mid-1990s — Biden should double down on his financially reckless policies. 

His lurch even further to the left has alienated independent voters to an alarming degree for Democrats, with independent support only in the mid- to upper-30s, according to numerous polls. In the process, he has completely unified conservatives and Republicans against him. 

Then Biden dug himself into an even deeper hole with a position that broke with four decades of tradition, by refusing to even negotiate on the debt ceiling. His position sounded schizophrenic to many voters, with 74% favoring negotiating over budget cuts in an Echelon Insights survey. On the one hand, Biden claimed that not raising the debt ceiling by June 1 would cause economic Armageddon. And in his next breath, he insisted he wouldn’t negotiate to avert Armageddon.  

Now, Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) seemingly are trapped in a fiscal box canyon with no exit strategy. Both are fecklessly attacking the Republican House plan — which is rich, given that Schumer reportedly can’t count on 51 votes in the Senate for any alternative plan.  

But the good news here, no matter what your party affiliation, is that Biden has to negotiate. He will have to cut the debt and agree to some commonsense reforms like restoring work requirements for welfare and canceling hundreds of billions of unspent COVID relief money; he will have to get America on some path toward a balanced budget.  

In the many years I’ve watched these budget showdowns, I’ve rarely seen the GOP so totally united. And that happened because conservatives and moderates alike agree that Biden’s budget policies are a danger to the health and wellbeing of our country.   

The GOP, for once, is winning the battle because their position is reasonable, ethical and economically sound — and most Americans seem to agree with them. 

Stephen Moore is a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation and an economic consultant with FreedomWorks. His latest book is, “Govzillla: How the Relentless Growth of Government Is Devouring Our Economy.”

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