As Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen warns us that the federal government is days from once again hitting the so-called debt ceiling that limits how much money America can borrow, the question arises: How far will Republicans go to wreck the first term of a Democratic president?
We know the answer: They’ll threaten to blow up the global economy, even as the country is facing a once-in-a-lifetime crisis. We know this for sure because 10 years ago this month, that’s exactly what the GOP did.
Faced with a brutal recession, the new Republican House majority insisted it was ready to intentionally default on America’s debt for the first time in American history – unless Democrats agreed to trillions in spending cuts in exchange for raising the debt limit. Slashing social programs was the GOP’s No. 1 priority even as 14 million Americans were looking for work.
The result was a roller coaster off its tracks, barreling through the economy, setting off stock market shudders around the globe and triggering fears of a financial crisis even larger than the one that exploded in 2007. When the coaster eventually crashed, the United States saw the first-ever downgrade of its credit rating.
Absurd and needless psychodrama
It's important to remember just how absurd and unnecessary the whole psychodrama was. On May 16, 2011, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner notified Congress he would be using extraordinary measures to keep the government functioning. That same day, House Republican budget “guru” Paul Ryan gave a speech in which he warned that “the unsustainable trajectory of government spending is accelerating the nation toward a ruinous debt crisis.”
Ryan’s cynicism turned out to be so thick, he could have used it to cement his always perfect hair. The federal debt in 2011 was heading toward $15 trillion. Ryan became speaker of the House in 2015. The federal debt in 2017 was more than $20 trillion. How did Ryan respond to that number? By ushering in more than $2 trillion in unfunded tax cuts.
In Ryan’s 2011 budget, he called for a $464 billion annual budget deficit by 2018. Instead, when he left his speakership in spring 2018, the deficit was $779 billion, up by $113 billion from 2017. In fact, the deficit rose every year after Ryan became speaker.
This is a leader and a party whose wars and tax cuts created most of the deficit. Their ruthlessness – holding the country hostage during a crisis they led us into in order to demand sacrifices they’ve never made themselves – was a harbinger of everything Republicans would do for the next decade.
From shutting down the government to trying to get a resoundingly reelected President Barack Obama to throw out the Affordable Care Act to hesitating to widely endorse vaccinations, even as the country faces a fourth wave of COVID-19 from an even deadlier variant, the GOP has thrived by using its failures to punish both Democrats in power and the rest of the country.
Holding everyone back: The Senate filibuster has a racist past and present. End it so America can move forward.
It’s fashionable to pin the fall of the GOP as a functioning part of democracy to the rise of Donald Trump. But all-out political war, the shameless exploitation of any crisis and the indifference to the pain of the Americans who need government most extend back to the time when Trump was still a gushing Hillary Clinton supporter.
While the GOP definitely stepped up its disloyal opposition during the shutdowns of the Bill Clinton era, sabotage didn’t really become the organizing principle of the party until the election of the first Black president. On the night of Obama’s inauguration, Sen. Mitch McConnell and other Republican Party leaders agreed to what author Robert Draper called an "unyielding" attack on the president’s attempt at an economic recovery. McConnell made it explicit in 2010 when he said, "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president."
Decades of dog whistle politics that helped fuel the so-called Southern Strategy, which the Republican National Committee chair had apologized for only a few years prior, helped foment an enraged opposition to Obama.
Birtherism and cloud of illegitimacy
The illegitimacy the party cast on the new president, after his historic and sweeping victory, erupted in a widespread embrace of "birtherism." Trump quickly embraced and exploited it. And because anything is justified when it comes to opposing an illegitimate president and the party he represents, you get opposition politicians who thrill at threats to blow up the economy and don't hesitate to cover up an insurrection that ended America’s peaceful transfers of power.
Which brings us to 2021. Republicans led by McConnell are making threats that echo 2011. Just as we’re hoping to recover from a once-in-a-century health crisis that put a record number of Americans out of work, McConnell says there won't be one Republican vote in the Senate to raise the debt limit.
The party leaders jostling for Trump’s mantle want crisis and humiliation for President Joe Biden as they attempt to reclaim power. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sounded both resigned and resolute Sunday on ABC News' "This Week."
"He's always been there to be an obstruction to a Democratic president," she said of McConnell, but added, "Let there be no question, we will address the debt limit."
We must all learn the lesson we didn’t in 2011. Democrats who try to negotiate with a GOP that widely rejects the opposition party's right to govern are only enabling Republicans' destructiveness. You cannot even engage their threats. You can only defeat them by trying to save the country from their vicious combination of incompetence and vindictiveness.
Jason Sattler, a writer based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and host of "The GOTMFV Show" podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @LOLGOP
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Debt ceiling threat recalls Republican goal to make sure Obama failed