I'm admittedly late to this, but it's so jaw-dropping that it bears repeating. Greg Sargent posted a must-read yesterday afternoon breaking down the Washington Post's most recent polling on raising the debt ceiling. His startling – but inarguable – conclusion: That Republican voters want a debt ceiling crisis, "even if it causes serious economic harm." The emphasis there is his.
He notes that the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll finds voters about evenly split on raising the debt ceiling – 46 percent favoring and 43 percent opposing – while at the same time 73 percent feel that failing to raise the debt limit would "cause serious harm to the U.S. economy."
Think about that for a second – a majority of Americans (including, it's worth noting, most economists) think that failing to raise the debt ceiling would "cause serious harm to the U.S. economy," and yet the country is still split as to whether we should try to avoid causing that serious harm. That's nuts.
Sargent decided to drill down and figure out the source of this particular fevered brand of madness. Here's what he found:
Again, emphasis is his – and correct. A clear majority of Republicans think that (a) not raising the debt ceiling would cause serious economic hard and (b) we should not raise the debt ceiling anyway and cause that serious economic harm. That boggles the mind. Sargent is unsure what to make of it – who wouldn't be? – but I think he gets at an explanation: "Apocalyptic intervention is required to salvage what's left of our country, no matter how much harm it causes in the process."
There's a puritanical, moralistic strain to the GOP's (post-Bush) spending obsession: Running a deficit isn't simply bad economics (and it's actually not, for the record) but is a deeper-seeded expression of some sort of national character flaw – indulgent social safety net programs have turned us into a nation of takers (the 47 percent!) who want nothing more than to parasitically drain the virtuous makers. So keeping taxes low on the wealthy while punishing the indigent is not only good economics (which, again, it's not) but also an expression of morality. If this sinning nation, then, must economically self-flagellate to get right with the good lord, well so be it. It's the ideological love child of Ayn Rand, Jerry Falwell and Art Laffer.
But coming back specifically to the debt ceiling, it's another example of Republican base voters becoming dangerously detached from the mainstream of American political thought. Per Sargent, Americans who think that failing to raise the debt ceiling would harm the economy favor raising it by a margin of 54-35, while independents who think not raising the debt ceiling would harm the economy favor raising it by 58-36. (Which makes sense, because as a general matter if you think doing something would "cause serious harm to the U.S. economy," most non-anarchist Americans would favor the course of action that doesn't entail said "serious harm." But I suppose the upside of anarchy for free-market conservatives is the absence of big government.)
As I've written before, this gap between the GOP and mainstream voters is enduring and perilous for Republicans. It comes down not only to specific areas where Americans favor President Obama's policies over the GOP's, but a broader, more fundamental difference between Republican voters and everyone else: Everyone else likes the idea of compromise while the GOP base abhors it. That makes ironing out the differences on issues more problematic.
And it's not a small number of issues – polls show voters favor Obama's approach over the GOP's by wide margins on everything from tax hikes for the rich to the Violence Against Women Act to increasing the minimum wage to comprehensive immigration reform (and specifically a path to citizenship) to toughened background checks on gun sales. The debt ceiling is closer, but among people who actually understand what's at stake, it's not.
And let's be clear what's at stake. To say that failing to raise the debt ceiling will cause serious harm to the U.S. economy actually understates somewhat. It would also wreak havoc with the global economy, what with the dollar being the world's reserve currency and all. If the world suddenly thought that U.S. government debt was anything less than reliable it would cause widespread economic turmoil.
And for those who need a refresher course: The debt ceiling is about existing bills, not new spending. Months or years ago, Congress authorized the federal government to spend money on things like national security and social safety net programs and research and, well, everything that the U.S. government does; what Congress failed to do when it okayed this spending was sign off on borrowing the money necessary to actually pay for all this stuff.
We actually reached the debt ceiling in mid-May and the Treasury Department has been using "extraordinary measures" since then to keep us from failing to pay our bills. It's a dumb system and should be ended – especially given that one of the nation's two major political parties seems to have been taken over by economic kamikazes.