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?

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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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