Right-wing nutjobs' last stand: The debt limit endgame arrives

As the debt limit deadline approaches, conservatives are trotting out the real nonsense. The fantasy is almost over

Published October 8, 2013 5:45PM (EDT)

Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Michele Bachmann                                   (Jeff Malet, maletphoto.com/Reuters/Jonathan Ernst/Joshua Lott)
Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Michele Bachmann (Jeff Malet, maletphoto.com/Reuters/Jonathan Ernst/Joshua Lott)

The fight over the debt limit is now eclipsing the ongoing government shutdown fight, and the way things are going, it almost seems like Republicans will grudgingly agree to avoid default so long as they don't have to simultaneously give up the albatross that's currently burdening their party.

Like an army of Spartan warriors, some Republicans hope to treat the shutdown like a battle on the coastal pass of Thermopylae -- a fight they might ultimately lose, but that they believe will perhaps wear down Democrats enough that they'll cave on the debt limit. As such, they're toying with the idea of increasing the debt limit for a few weeks. Better that than lose both fights simultaneously.

But there's plenty of reason to doubt that anything can pass in the House until John Boehner faces up to reality and lets Democrats dictate terms to him. So in the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid will press ahead with an old twist on a clean debt limit bill of his own. Under his plan, which was once Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's plan, Congress would hand authority for increasing the debt limit to the president, but retain the power to block new borrowing with supermajority votes in both chambers.

Moving quickly, while Boehner and his lieutenants dither, is a can't-lose move for Reid. If the plan fails -- that is, if Republicans successfully filibuster the bill with a week before the Treasury Department's deadline -- markets will turn, and the pressure on the GOP to cave will increase. If it passes, Boehner will be isolated. His demands for concessions will be fully uncloaked as stubborn expressions of entitlement rather than a natural consequence of legislative math. But the government might still be closed!

Which brings us to the politics. Reid will need at least six Republicans to back a debt limit increase, or at least to break a filibuster. Already, Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., has said he'd support a clean debt limit increase, and John McCain, R-Ariz., has said he might as well. Others are also in play.

The right is thus being stirred awake from its insurrectionist wet dream, and struggling mightily to hold on to the fantasy.

As the deadline approaches, conservatives, and the members of the Republican leadership who have to toe their line, are trotting out the nonsense. Generally it comes in two forms -- a polite version that respected elders can entertain, and the really crazy stuff. But the aim in both cases is to create space for wavering Republicans to rejoin the ranks of those demanding concessions.

Here's the polite rendition, which is glib and misleading and deliberately lazy, but also easily discredited:

The intent here is to convince you that Democrats were just as willing to tank the economy in 2006 as Republicans are now, or that they don't believe the dire nature of their warnings today. Huge hypocrites.

If your intelligence is insulted by this lame effort, you can skip ahead a few paragraphs. If not you should note that the factual claim here -- "in 2006, raising the debt ceiling passed 52 to 48, with ALL Democrats voting against" -- is true, but it explodes the argument.

If a bill passed 52-48 in the Senate in 2006, it means Democrats either helped to break their own party's filibuster in a previous vote, or didn't filibuster at all. In this case it was the latter. That neutralizes the argument that today's Republicans are mirror image of the Democrats of 2006. The subsidiary hypocrisy angle is trivial by comparison. Democrats, including then-Sen. Obama grandstanded and voted against the increase, but President Bush gave them no policy concessions (if he had, they wouldn't have voted against the increase unanimously) and if the goal was to extract policy concessions from President Bush they would have filibustered.

Moreover if all Democrats voted against increasing the debt limit, that means only Republicans voted for it. A clean debt limit increase, just like that. You can tell a similar story about the House vote. Many of those Republicans are still in Congress today, including leaders in both chambers. If there's a lesson here it's that Republicans became reactionary, procedurally extreme austerians in 2009 and there's something new and unusual about what they're doing right now. Democrats are hardly implicated at all.

That's the politic argument.

The bonkers one is that blowing through the Treasury Department's Oct. 17 deadline isn't particularly dangerous and that we'll never default on the debt unless President Obama chooses to.

The truth is that nobody knows what happens on Oct. 18 because nobody can predict how severely U.S. creditors will react to such a rattling indictment of our political system. Downplaying the risk that the demand for American debt will drop, and interest rates will rise -- and then inviting the country to test the proposition -- is insanely reckless. And either way the problems will mount quickly. Because our spending commitments exceed federal revenues, a massive funds shortfall will render the Treasury unable to finance myriad government services. That in and of itself would be enough to drive the country into a severe recession. But the problem would be worse than a simple austerity crisis from hell. Receipts and payment obligations don't harmonize, and don't materialize smoothly. Eventually -- probably on Oct. 25 -- Treasury will lack sufficient funds to pay Social Security beneficiaries.

House conservatives' self-imposed intellectual insulation has left them surrounded by charlatans who say there's no risk of default at all. That Treasury can structure payments so that the country's creditors are held harmless. Some of these hacks know better, but would rather lie than watch Republicans lose their nerve before Obama blinks (which they're convinced he will). In truth, this kind of prioritization is unlawful, and, relatedly, outside the government's technical capacity.

After two and a half years of debt limit threats and the attendant deluge of misinformation, an alarming number of Republicans think this way. Party leadership is complicit in allowing these dangerous fantasies to flourish, but fortunately they haven't succumbed, themselves.

Which is why -- as volatile as things are, and as disconcerting as the shutdown is -- it's a mistake to interpret stories about the view from inside the conservative bubble as reflective of the party leadership's ultimate intent. House Republicans might be an ungovernable mess. But the people who control the floor understand the real dangers of breaching the debt limit. And Democrats don't need more than 15 or 20 Republican votes to cut the right loose and increase the debt limit. As weak as John Boehner is, he's not that weak. If we breach, it will be because he chose not to deliver them.

By Brian Beutler

Brian Beutler is Salon's political writer. Email him at bbeutler@salon.com and follow him on Twitter at @brianbeutler.

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