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The debt ceiling drama, explained in 2 minutes
01:58 - Source: CNN Business

Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author and editor of 25 books, including the New York Times best-seller, “Myth America: Historians Take on the Biggest Lies and Legends About Our Past” (Basic Books). Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

As the country moves closer to potentially defaulting on its debt, President Joe Biden is desperately trying to reach an agreement with House Republicans to avert economic disaster.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is standing firm on his demands for spending cuts in exchange for raising the debt ceiling. The speaker, who obtained his leadership position by agreeing to a rule that allows a single lawmaker to call a vote to oust him, doesn’t have much wiggle room to compromise with Biden if he wants to keep his job. For his part, the president is angering members of his own party as he takes part in the kinds of negotiations that he initially insisted he would never engage with.

Even the most seasoned political experts have no idea how this will all conclude. From the president potentially invoking the 14th Amendment to the prospect of a total economic meltdown, everything seems to be on the table. That we have to wonder about a potential catastrophe is the most telling fact of all.

Regardless of the outcome, Republicans have already won this political war. Once again, the GOP has weaponized a routine process. In doing so, it has normalized an extreme tactic that should not be considered a legitimate tool of partisan combat. Although former President Barack Obama hoped to have quashed this tactic in 2013 when he stood firm against the Tea Party Republicans during another round of debt ceiling threats (the GOP managed to extract significant concessions in 2011 using a similar approach), an extreme cohort of Republican legislators has shown that this high-risk maneuver is not going away.

What’s clear is that we now live in a world where one party can and will threaten to send the country off an economic cliff in order to get what it wants. If people think that this is about principle or fiscal responsibility, they should recall that the Republicans helped raise the debt ceiling three times during the Trump era without kicking up a fuss. This is about politics, pure and simple.

By weaponizing a procedural move that allows the government to function and by treating this kind of radical strategy as conventional, the modern GOP is destabilizing the country and making it harder to govern – a move that conveniently benefits the party that has defined itself around an anti-government philosophy.

Creating this kind of instability is also a strategic victory because it thwarts Democrats, who are still committed to the centrality of government. These partisan moves consume precious time and political capital that could otherwise be used to deal with the most pertinent challenges that the nation faces from climate change to election security.

For over a month, Biden has been forced to deal with this manufactured crisis. He was even forced to cut an important foreign policy trip short because he felt he needed to continue in-person negotiations. With the debt ceiling becoming the most pressing issue, Biden has diverted energy that he could have otherwise spent on important policy areas and shoring up alliances abroad.

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Time is an important commodity, and with the debt ceiling, the Republicans have found a way to eat up the clock and do so with a threat so grandiose it puts any Democrat in a precarious position. In this case, Biden is forced to make the choice between negotiating with Republicans or watching them burn down the entire house.

At this point, even if Biden finds a resolution and works out a deal that allows him to claim success and move on, he and the Democrats have lost.

We’ve seen in recent years just how far the GOP has been able to move the goalposts and lower the bar as to what is considered acceptable in American politics. As a result, Democrats will keep finding themselves in a deeper and deeper hole, operating in a system that Republicans seem hellbent on breaking. In the face of this reality, Democrats will also find themselves spending more time simply trying to keep the nation afloat than tackling the pressing problems of our era.

Unless Democrats take tougher steps in the future, such as pushing for legislation that eliminates the debt ceiling once and for all, they will keep finding themselves in this bind, struggling to keep their footing in a world where one party still plays by the rules and the other is willing to do whatever is necessary — and at whatever cost — to achieve its objectives and retain power.