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:


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

The Tea Party is not a movement, it is a cult or a sect, a subset of a religion. And while they may not go away, they could be muted if the Speaker had even the slightest amount of courage or honor. They are a minority within their party, and can’t elect one of their own to lead the party. They can be snuffed out, like McCarthyism, when Republican leadership (if such a thing exists) acts responsibly.

So for the last two weeks, Boehner has refused to hold a vote on a clean CR, because it would pass with votes from both parties. Now, all of a sudden, he’s going to let the house vote on a bill that passed the Senate? If he is forced to hold that vote, why didn’t Senate Republicans force that issue two weeks ago? Are they as gutless as Boehner?

Posted by KenG_CA | Report as abusive

Man, with “that the bonkers wing of the Republican party is going to have achieved exactly none of its own goals,” you just walked right up to a soccer metaphor and then ran away as though it hadn’t happened.

I’m not quite clear whether Boehner is worried about reelection as speaker in 2015 or whether there’s some way the Tea Party can force him out before then, or whether he simply thinks that standing up to them will cost him some political capital he needs later; either way, let’s stipulate that they have him somehow constrained. In that case, the appointment of Paul Ryan as chief negotiator for the Republicans is a great relief. People too often confuse moderation and pragmatism, and while Ryan is conservative enough to have credibility with the Tea Party, he is a pragmatist; you’re not going to see the sequester unwound, but you’re also not going to see an insistence on the full repeal of Obamacare as a condition of passing anything else. As long as we have minority government in the House, there’s no point in being too optimistic, but I think there’s a nonnegligible chance that the calendar year will end with an actual FY2014 budget in place and enough debt ceiling room to get us through it.

Posted by dWj | Report as abusive

The insanity will end in January of 2015 if not earlier.

Recent polls showed that if the midterms were held today, Republicans would be in serious danger of losing the House. Now, nobody really expects those polls to predict 2014–a year is a long time in politics and the GOP has a big structural advantage. But if we get more shutdowns and debt ceiling hostage crises over the coming year, right into election season, then Republicans really will lose the House. Either they shape up or the voters will ship them out.

Posted by Dausuul | Report as abusive

Does the Tea Party have fewer adherents than Prohibition did? Be very afraid.

Posted by MaysonLancaster | Report as abusive

The Tea Party are falling into that trap of “give someone enough rope and they’ll hang themselves”. Maybe Boehner is playing a canny game: showing the electorate what this bunch of idiots is really like so that the public never elects them again?

Well, one can wish…

Posted by FifthDecade | Report as abusive

The big question left is will the business interests that supported Tea Party candidates fund them once again now that they see the results? Or, when faced with the question of Tea Party vs Someone Else, will Big Money choose Someone Else? Because Big Money bit hard for the “no regulations, no Obamacare” promise in 2010, and they see what it got them.

Posted by RAEckart22 | Report as abusive

Funny how you liberals talk about doing so much while armchair quarterbacking sitting on your fat asses.

Posted by Regulator247 | Report as abusive

Increasing America’s debt weakens us domestically and internationally. Leadership means that “the buck stops here.” Instead, Washington is shifting the burden of bad choices today onto the backs or our children and grandchildren.

America has a debt problem and a failure of leadership. Americans deserve better.

I therefore intend to oppose the effort to increase America’s debt limit.

Barack Obama
Congressional Record
March 16, 2006

Posted by BarryFromDC | Report as abusive

Increasing America’s debt weakens us domestically and internationally. Leadership means that “the buck stops here.” Instead, Washington is shifting the burden of bad choices today onto the backs or our children and grandchildren.

America has a debt problem and a failure of leadership. Americans deserve better.

I therefore intend to oppose the effort to increase America’s debt limit.

Barack Obama
Congressional Record
March 16, 2006

Posted by BarryFromDC | Report as abusive

Well, the real question is how far the can gets kicked down the road next time…don’t forget that all of this only “solved” the problem temporarily. We are likely to be going through the exact same scenario early next year.

The big news out of all this is threefold:

1) the markets did not panic
2) No GOP Senator filibustered the final Senate agreement
3) Boehner showed that when push comes to shove he will break the Hastert rule and defy his own caucus

Now while it’s possible that Boehner will get the boot as Speaker, given the way in which the Speaker of the House is elected, it is relatively unlikely, since the Tea Party would need 218 votes to replace him, which they don’t have.

Posted by mfw13 | Report as abusive

Actually, President Obama and Democrats caved, unless you accept that only Democrats cared about saving the economy and reopening government. In this case, Democrats came out huge winners.

But if Republicans also cared about reopening government and avoiding default, then the slight modification to the ACA and keeping the sequester-level cuts in place, are just smaller giveaways (than prior cave-ins) to Republicans.

The downside risk is that in the new year, markets and the media will simply excuse the politics as SOP reality, and all pressure to avoid a default evaporates.

Posted by GRRR | Report as abusive


Posted by europjoy | Report as abusive

Brains yummy. Eyes are two salty. Awesome.

Posted by 2Borknot2B | Report as abusive

Just as US drone attacks on terrorists in Pakistan generates thousands on new terrorists every month, dangerous levels of US debt create more radical fiscal conservatives. To think February 7 will come and go without a bloody political fight is a Liberal pipe dream.

Posted by JSH3 | Report as abusive

Head shots only, anyone? Seriously though, I wish some of the tea people would get some brains. Even if it is just for a snack.

Posted by Dave-the-man | Report as abusive

The tea party is shrinking fast. It’s the democrats you need to worry about.
OBambi wants to cut Social Security etc. etc.

Posted by Juan1 | Report as abusive

With a tea party speaker instead of Boehner, the vote would have been prevented and today we would have a default on our hands. This is just how close the tea party came to destroying America.

Posted by UScitizentoo | Report as abusive

It’s annoying to see someone who doesn’t know the definition of a straightforward word like “nihilist” get paid to write.

It’s like watching Alanis Morrisette sing about irony, despite not knowing what the word means.

Posted by tbrookside | Report as abusive

The third word in the above byline is incorrect
I should be ‘and’

Posted by jackdanielsesq | Report as abusive

mfw13…The Hastert rule is simply a way for the Speaker to oppress or suppress any legislation HE doesn’t particularly want to let come to a vote. If you listen to what (R) King (NY) said, the majority of the Republican’s in the House would have voted for a clean funding bill weeks ago. The Hastert rule was designed when exactly the opposite exits. It was the MINORITY of Republicans that Boehner was catering to. As asinine as that situation was. McConnell in the Senate looks even worse. He got an earmark for his home state of Kentucky in the funding bill that he and Reid crafted that eventually got passed in both houses. DEBT? Not the concern of either party. Rather a bargaining chip for political gain.

Posted by xyz2055 | Report as abusive

Career politicians, not zombies, have taken over all of our government and the news media. What’s your position on Gerrymandering, Felix?

Posted by JohnOfArc | Report as abusive