The Debt Ceiling Fight Doesn’t Advance America First

The House Freedom Caucus is prepared for another showdown over the debt ceiling with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). The media portrays the brewing fight as a dispute between MAGA populists and the GOP establishment. But that’s a mistaken view. Brinkmanship over budget issues is a relic from the pre-Trump Tea Party age, which America First conservatives need to reject.

The Freedom Caucus says its goal with the debt ceiling fight is to “shrink Washington.” But the caucus chairman, U.S. Representative Scott Perry (R-Penn.), says he doesn’t want to touch defense spending, which is a major feature of the swamp. Instead, Perry wants various regulatory cuts primarily around climate, Medicaid, and food stamps. 

“We think we should be pulling government back, getting out of the way of the American people, letting them create growth and opportunity for their kids and grandkids,” said HFC policy chairman Chip Roy (R-Texas). “And if you create economic growth, you can actually grow out of the debt that we face.”

There is nothing wrong with this focus. But it sounds pretty indistinguishable from former Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan’s agenda—especially the insistence on zero defense cuts. 

The battle over the debt limit shows how badly the GOP wants to return to business as usual. There’s no discussion about foreign policy and the U.S. military footprint abroad. Immigration is nowhere to be found in this battle, either. The top priority is government debt, a traditional focus of the Republican establishment. 

We know how this will play out. A shutdown could threaten America’s credit score and cause serious economic troubles. Thanks to the overwhelming bias of the mainstream media, Democrats can then easily blame any economic problems in 2024 on the Republicans. Many government functions—such as border security and veteran support—will be threatened. The media and Democrats will then place the blame for the border crisis and uncared-for vets on Republicans. A shutdown caused by a small segment of Republicans when the Democrats control the presidency and the Senate will make it nearly impossible to attribute the situation to anyone else. 

The GOP will lose this messaging battle. Voters overwhelmingly support raising the debt limit. Conservatives can certainly disagree with that view, but a shutdown is not going to play well with the public. We can’t win on defunding wokeness, immigration, or the more traditional woke issues unless Republicans win back Congress and the White House.

It’s also a bad idea to shut down the government when we face a catastrophic border crisis. Illegal immigrants are already pouring in at record rates. There would be a tremendous rush at the border if migrants knew fewer Border Patrol agents were there to stop them. Republicans have done a good job blaming the crisis on Joe Biden and his party. But a shutdown would give Democrats the opportunity to blame Republicans for the crisis, undermining one of the GOP’s most effective pitches for 2024. Republican voters care more about the border than they do about government debt. Choosing to prioritize the latter over the former would be a terrible political decision.

This does not mean the GOP should roll over. Republicans should press some clear demands. They should emphasize that America will not default on its debt, and prioritize payment of interest payments on debt to protect the nation’s full credit standing. Accepting this as nonnegotiable will ensure that there is not a complete default. A complete default would harm the economy, which would then be blamed on Republicans. The GOP can still use the debt limit fight to demand cuts to unnecessary government programs and left-wing slush funds. But the timing is wrong to escalate this into a shutdown, especially in light of the border crisis and Republicans’ political vulnerability. It will only help the Democrats. 

A truly New Right would devote itself to securing the border, not to an unpopular battle over the debt ceiling. Donald Trump didn’t win the presidency on arcane matters concerning the government budget. He campaigned on putting Americans first when it comes to immigration, trade, and foreign policy. It’s time for the rest of the GOP to follow suit and focus on what actually matters to the American people. 

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