Jonathan Bernstein: McCarthy won the debt-limit deal. Biden did, too

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The compromise that Joe Biden and Kevin McCarthy struck this weekend to raise the debt ceiling should strengthen the political standing of both leaders, but especially that of McCarthy, whose aptitude and authority as House speaker have been very much in question since he was elected to the job early this year.

The most important outcome from the agreement — assuming Congress manages to pass the legislation — is that a devastating default will be avoided. There also will be policy changes, including a cap on government spending and new work requirements for some recipients of government assistance, whose effects will be significant.

But the political ramifications are meaningful. Most notably, McCarthy will have proved that he can bargain on behalf of his party. He will have demonstrated within the Republican conference that he is willing to take the brunt of criticisms, an important part of a party leader’s job in Congress. He already will be helped in the final vote on the compromise by having found the support last month to pass a Republican-only bill that kicked off the bargaining with Biden; every time party leaders prove that they can count votes and pass what they want, it makes it more likely that they will win future votes.

Not too many observers (and certainly not this columnist!) thought that McCarthy could navigate the dysfunctional House Republican conference. If he can get this deal through the House and survive, it will be fair to say that he is exceeding expectations. (1)

As for Biden, he will benefit primarily from having avoided not just the consequences of a default, the threat of which is now safely pushed back until beyond the 2024 presidential election, but the possibility of a government shutdown. There will still be partisan squabbling in Congress, but the deal should dramatically reduce how much casual voters will notice. And voters generally don’t like partisan squabbling.

As far as Biden’s reputation within Washington, he wound up with about the same deal that he would have reached when a new spending package is negotiated this fall — one that reflects divided government, but doesn’t pay a significant ransom for raising the debt limit. (2)

That will enhance the already-established perception that Biden is a solid deal maker with a professional team at the White House. This was apparent during the debt-limit showdown when congressional Democrats seemed content to let the White House negotiate on their behalf. Some of the most liberal members will oppose the deal, but they probably will blame McCarthy and the Republicans for measures they don’t like, rather than Biden for not being tough enough.

There also will be people who chastise Biden for negotiating over the debt ceiling after saying he wouldn’t. That critique isn’t likely to resonate with Washington insiders, who always expected that Biden would negotiate. Still, McCarthy will be inclined to capitalize on the notion, because it makes him look like he won by forcing Biden to the table.

As the influential political scientist Richard Neustadt once observed, most presidential influence is earned, not automatic. Biden protected Democratic priorities, making a deal that avoided a disaster and choosing compromises that did relatively little damage from a liberal perspective. In doing so, he burnished his reputation as a deal maker and as a careful student of what matters most to the Democratic coalition. So expect Democrats to continue trusting Biden to act in their interest, which makes it more likely they will support his nominees, allow him to negotiate on their behalf and accept his framing of issues.

Biden’s ability to reach a deal means, for example, that Democrats will continue to support White House requests for additional assistance to Ukraine. Political and policy professionals, from bureaucrats and governors to interest group leaders and decision makers outside the U.S., will be more impressed with Biden’s abilities and his knack for getting through difficult situations, even if things look dicey along the way.

If, that is, the deal passes and a default is avoided.


(1) There is a history of such deals falling apart very late in the game, but so far the indications are positive.

(2) Or, as Congress scholar Josh Huder puts it, Democrats here are getting a better deal than they would have over a series of repeated confrontations which, thanks to this deal, will now not take place.


(Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. A former professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics)