Being outside of Washington I don’t get invited to all the cool confabs, but apparently I missed Nancy Pelosi saying that Democrats won’t lose hostage situations again.

The theme of the meeting was reluctance to re-hash or second guess debt ceiling strategy and attempt to get people to focus attention moving forward on jobs. But one natural forward looking question is whether we’ll simply see the same kind of standoff again and again, starting with the expiration of appropriations at the end of September. Pelosi swore that’s not the case: “Suffice it to say—we won’t see a repetition.”

When pressed she declined to get into specifics, arguing that to do so would undermine the efficacy of Democrats’ tactical options. But she posited that “a default is a much more serious consequence than a government shutdown,” indicating that part of the strategy is to be willing to go over the cliff and fight it out in the court of public opinion. Later, revisiting the subject she did specifically caution “I don’t want you coming out of here and saying I’m going to shut down the government.” The clear implication, however, is that she does in fact expect Democrats to refuse to agree to further spending cuts even if refusal results in a shutdown.

Maybe Nancy Pelosi would refuse additional spending cuts (remember, the spending cap negotiated in the debt limit deal is a ceiling, not a floor), but I don’t know how that would much matter. The situation will simply have more to do with Harry Reid and Barack Obama by virtue of their positions in their respective branches of government. And what is the case right now is that these figures, particularly Obama, have allowed a permanent change in the norms by which Washington has conducted themselves for a long time. Nobody had taken the debt limit hostage before, or at least nobody was successful with that tactic. No more, and now that it worked, Republicans want to make that the new normal. Sen. Rob Portman has a Wall Street Journal op-ed saying exactly that today.

This is only the latest normative shift, from using the filibuster for every piece of legislation to politicizing career Justice Department hires to adding policy riders in funding authorization extensions. But it could be the most destructive one yet.

As a matter of political norms, we’ve been through a change that may be hard to reverse. In essence: moves that were technically legal, but were “not done” because they were too brutal or destructive, have now been done — and have paid off. It’s like the Indiana Jones scene where a sword fighter is warming up for a duel and Indy pulls out his gun to shoot him dead. No one will enter a fight without a gun again.

But you do have people show up with knives to the gunfight, on the Democratic side. Because in that same meeting with Nancy Pelosi she said this.

“The middle-class tax cuts will be made permanent and the tax cuts for high income would be allowed to expire in 18 months,” she said, reiterating the Democratic position on the issue. But that’s as far as House Democrats are willing to go. “We’re not going to see a big debate on eliminating the middle-income tax cuts.”

Even if you thought that Clinton-era tax rates on the middle class were a bridge too far, why would you accept the poorly targeted Bush tax cuts as the mechanism for that? They are highly regressive tax cuts that benefit the rich far more than the middle class, even at the so-called “middle-income” level. Why not write a plan for the Democratic tax cuts, say that the Bush tax rates are a thing of the past that will expire, and I don’t know, run on it? I hear there’s an election coming up.

But that would violate too many norms, I guess.

…more on this meeting from Sam Stein if you want to depress yourself further.

David Dayen

David Dayen