The Scary Reason Republicans Want a Debt Ceiling Fight

Has the GOP learned that messing with the nation's credit is the path to success?

House Speaker John Boehner's office says President Barack Obama did not contact them regarding new economic plans Obama is pitching as a compromise.

Washington Monthly's Ed Kilgore notes with appropriate alarm the won't-go-away talk among House Republicans about substituting a threat of government shutdown if Obamacare isn't defunded with a refusal to raise the debt ceiling. This is a terrifically stupid idea, he notes, because, as Ezra Klein says, a government shutdown would be an "inconvenience" while a debt default "is a global financial crisis."

So what, Kilgore asks, are Republicans thinking? He suggests movement conservatives are ensorcelled by the Green Lantern/"Nike existentialism" ("Just do it!") theory of politics, which holds that the only thing standing between a movement and victory is a lack of will. And I think there's something to that.

But I think there's another dimension more grounded in reality (and so arguably scarier) why Republican leaders might see a debt ceiling fight as better ground than a government shutdown showdown. First, we've seen the both of these movies before. Revisionist conservatives aside, Republicans took a beating during the government shutdowns of the mid-1990s, while they managed to extract concessions from President Obama during the last debt ceiling fight. From that point of view, if you have to have a fight, it might as well be the one that – from a cold political perspective – turned out better than the other.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

Ultimately Republicans suspect that (per Politico today) Democrats actually want a government shutdown, that they see it as a way to reset midterm congressional elections stacked heavily in the GOP's favor. Add to that the fact that everyone knows Obama is desperate to avoid a debt default (for the same rational reasons every president – Democrat and Republican alike – has been desperate to avoid one) and the fact that conservatives have a deep-seated belief that Obama is inclined to cave (see also the certitude among the ludicrous right that he'll sign a defunding bill at all).

What you have is a formula where the debt default (which he's desperate to avoid) is a better fight than the shutdown (which, they believe, he wants anyway).

As I said, that analysis makes a default fight even scarier because it's not just being pushed by the Republican rank-and-file, but could be a calculated risk by the leadership.

It could be an ugly fall indeed.

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