Hertzberg: Republicans are Neo-Confederates and Obama Can Raise the Debt Ceiling Unilaterally


To get a sense of where the liberal establishment is hanging out these days, read former Carter speechwriter Hendrik "Rick" Hertzberg, one of The New Yorker's better-known editorialists (which is to say, one of The New Yorker's most ideological and poorly informed writers).

When it comes to raising the debt ceiling Hertzberg opines thus:

There are similarities [between yesterday's secessionists and today's Republicans]. Prominent among them is a belief that a federal law need not be repealed in order to be nullified. Equally noteworthy is an apparent inability to be reconciled to the results of an election. Last November, after a campaign that turned largely on the issue of health care, Barack Obama was reëlected with a popular majority of five million. In Senate races, Democrats drew ten million more votes than Republicans. In the House of Representatives, Republicans, whom Democrats outpolled by a million and a half, retained their legislative majority only by dint of the vagaries of districting and redistricting. The Confederates had a better case: in 1860, Abraham Lincoln got barely thirty-nine per cent of the vote, a smaller share than any Presidential winner since.

In the current imbroglio, Republicans threatened that, unless their demands were met, they would (a) shut down most of the government and, more alarmingly, (b) deny the Treasury the ability to borrow the money it needs to pay expenses that Congress has already authorized. 

All partisan sloganeering aside, this sort of thing is just sad. The logic here is mind-boggling: Forget the way that American elections and government structures actually work. The important thing is that across all elections last fall, Democrats drew more aggregate votes so they get to call all the shots even if they don't control the House. Representative government is only legitimate insofar as it represents what Rick Hertzberg knows to be good and decent and proper. And since Obama won re-election—or as The New Yorker insists (in deference to Big Umlaut) reëlection – that means he has the free hand of a Caesar to do whatever he wants in his second term.

Which isn't to say that Hertzberg wants you to get carried away with "the results of an election." Because some reëlections are better than others.

As it happens, Hertzberg didn't greet the second term of George W. Bush with a warm embrace. Back in 2004, he lamented the fact that Bush and the GOP managed to keep control of the White House, the Senate, and the House. "The system of checks and balances has broken down," he wrote back then. He certainly didn't call for his ideological confreres to reconcile themselves with that election. And of course now that power is shared, however unevenly, the system is even more broken down, because the Democrats can't simply impose their will.

But the really important thing, stresses Hertzberg in his more recent observation, is that Obama doesn't need Congress' approval to spend whatever he wants. Because…14th Amendment!:

It is widely said that the Obama Administration has "ruled out" recourse to the fourth section of the Fourteenth Amendment. Not so. In 2011, when the Republicans test-drove their debt-ceiling gambit, Timothy Geithner, then the Secretary of the Treasury, read the section to a breakfast gathering of reporters. A squall ensued; the President calmed it, saying that "lawyers" had advised him that the Fourteenth was not a "winning argument." Similarly cagey equivocations have been forthcoming this time around. Obama has been careful to keep the option on life support.

So the Republicans are "similar" to the old slave power that seceded from the Union because…they are fully operating within the power structure as laid out by the Constitution. Their goals and tactics may be stupid and offensive and may even lead to their wholesale ouster in 2104. But are they acting unconstitutionally? No.

Yet if the former constitutional law instructor Obama—also a former senator who inveighed against raising the debt limit as a "failure of leadership"—goes against his own sense of the Constitution, that's just fine. In fact, says Hertzberg, it would be so popular that it "would be all [Obama] could do to head off a post-Bloombergian boomlet to somehow get around another amendment, the Twenty-second, and usher him to a third term." Sure, because while 70 percent of Americans oppose raising the debt limit, those people really don't count. Because some of them most certainly voted to keep the GOP in charge of the House. And you know what? Today's GOP are like Confederate secessionists—except "the Confederates had a better case."

Read the whole thing here.

Exit question for those of Hertzberg's view on debt: When should the debt ceiling not be extended? Was Sen. Obama just horsing around when he inveighed against back in 2006? And is it so wrong to condition the debt ceiling's increase on, you know, actually tackling long-range spending and debt issues? Or is that just total freaking madness?

And if you've got a really tough case of the Mondays, get a laugh out of Hertzberg's gloss on "The Drone Perplex" (is it any wonder that a Carter-era appratchik is the last man in America to use the word perplex without intentional irony or humor?). The real problem with Obama's secretive and almost-certainly extrajudicial use of drones to kill people (including American citizens) isn't simply that it participates in the "secrecy, deceit, and unchecked executive power" that characterizes most foreign-policy snafus. No, it's that "it has somehow managed to cast Rand Paul—who would abrogate the American social contract, consolidate the country's transformation into a merciless plutocracy, and destroy the global power of the United States not just for ill but, in both senses, for good—as the conscience of a nation and the hero of its enlightened youth."

Note: I made minor edits and corrections to this around 3.50pm.