Barack Obama vs zombies

By Felix Salmon
October 16, 2013

There’s a strain of triumphalism coursing through the blogosphere today, on the grounds that the bonkers wing of the Republican party is going to have achieved exactly none of its own goals, while inflicting upon itself a massive black eye. The markets are feeling vindicated too: over the past week of DC craziness, the stock market has risen, pretty steadily, a total of about 2.5%. As a trading strategy, “tune out all news from inside the Beltway” seems to have worked very well — it’s a complete vindication of the Nassim Taleb idea that investors shouldn’t read the newspaper. On top of that, the potential debt default was by its nature almost impossible to trade: outside a few obscure instruments like US CDS, it’s very difficult to make money from a trade betting that tails are going to get fatter, for a short while.

But as a feeling of relief courses through Washington and the markets, let’s not get carried away. Yes, as Jonathan Chait says, it’s very good news that the House Republicans’ plan collapsed. But the can hasn’t been kicked very far down the road: we’re going to hit the debt ceiling again in just a few short months. And at that point, one of two things will happen. Either the Republicans, licking their self-inflicted wounds from the current fiasco, will quietly and efficiently pass a bill while getting nothing in return. Or, in the spirit of “if at first you don’t succeed”, they will try, try again.

Joe Weisenthal, like Chait, is hopefully eyeing the first possibility.

And Chait himself goes even further:

We can’t be certain Republicans will never hold the debt ceiling hostage again; but Obama has now held firm twice in a row, and if he hasn’t completely crushed the Republican expectation that they can extract a ransom, he has badly damaged it. Threatening to breach the debt ceiling and failing to win a prize is costly behavior for Congress — you anger business and lose face with your supporters when you capitulate. As soon as Republicans come to believe they can’t win, they’ll stop playing.

The problem is that, pace Weisenthal, you can’t just kill someone’s revolutionary nihilism. The Ted Cruz “filibuster” is a great example: it served no actual legislative purpose, and at the end of his idiotically long speech, Cruz ended up voting yes on the very bill he was trying to kill. That’s zombie politics, and the problem with zombies is that — being dead already — they’re incredibly hard to kill.

The point here is that the zombie army, a/k/a the Tea Party, is a movement, not a person — and it’s an aggressively anti-logical movement, at that. You can’t negotiate with a zombie — and neither can you wheel out some kind of clever syllogism which will convince a group of revolutionary nihilists that it’s a bad idea to get into a fight if you’re reasonably convinced that you’re going to lose it. Spoiler alert: it turns out that Ed Norton was beating up himself, all along. When you’re Really Angry, sometimes losing a big fight against The Man is exactly what you feel like doing.

This is why Michael Casey is right: the US should be downgraded. Zombies have taken over a large chunk of the Capitol, and there’s no particular reason to believe that they’re going away any time soon. We will have more sequesters, and more shutdowns, and more debt-ceiling fights, and eventually, in a statistical inevitability, we will fail to find some kind of way through the mess. Besides, as Casey says, even if we do, somehow, manage to muddle through, that doesn’t change the basic underlying fact: “triple-A credits do not behave like this.”

Remember that the sequester was initially put into place as a way to force the hand of any self-interested, logical group of politicians. They had to either come to an agreement — or face an outcome which was specifically designed to be as unpalatable to as many different interest groups as possible. And yet, despite the Sword of Damocles hanging over their heads, the politicians squabbled until it fell. The bigger sword, the debt ceiling, has not fallen yet — but I for one have no particular faith in the ability of Congress to always prevent it from doing so.

Yes, the President has won an important battle against the zombies. But while it’s possible to win a zombie battle, it’s never possible to win a zombie war. No matter how many individual zombies you dispatch, there will always be ten more where they came from. The Tea Party doesn’t take legislative defeat as a signal that it’s doing something wrong: it takes it as a signal that nothing has really changed in Washington and that they therefore need to redouble their nihilistic efforts. Take it from me: come February, or March, or whenever we end up having to have this idiotic debt-ceiling fight all over again, the Tea Party will still be there, and will still be as crazy as ever. A bruised zombie, ultimately, is just a scarier zombie.

Update: Many thanks to Dan Drezner, who has helpfully supplied the soundtrack to this post:

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