Debt limit defeat turns conservatives into neo-Confederate fantasists

A deal is close and the contours are clear. The Tea Party has been routed: So why are true believers delusional?

Published October 14, 2013 11:45AM (EDT)

There are apparently two ways to interpret the debt limit fight, now in its waning hours. One, based on the comically small zone of disagreement between principals, suggests the entire stand off has been a bunch of sound and fury signifying nothing.

Another, based on the sensational fantasies of movement conservatives, re-imagines the drama as a Battle of Gettysburg for the 21st century.

There's an inverse relationship between these two perspectives. With the deadline approaching, it's natural that the parties are now haggling over relatively minor details. But the proximity of a resolution is making dead-enders desperate and thus prone to delusion.

Here's what they're telling National Review's Robert Costa.

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The article is by the Associated Press, but the picture above it really tells the whole story. Conservatives see Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz and imagine a national groundswell is forming. They do not perceive two widely loathed politicians who bespeak the House GOP's total isolation so exquisitely. They believe the latest small crowd of white conservatives protesting the closure of war monuments (which would be open had they not shut down the government) will upend the whole debate and reverse the tide of public opinion against them.

Or at least they believed it.

Moments after the story overtook nearly every significant conservative news outlet in the country, the narrative those outlets were trying to create ran headlong into the reality that the constituency for continuing to fight overlaps significantly with the constituency that bemoans the outcome of the War of Northern Aggression.

There was this guy, waving both a Marine Corps and a Confederate flag, who was perhaps unaware which side the Marines were on in the Civil War.

Then there was this guy, who thinks it might be time to refresh the tree of liberty with the president's blood, or perhaps just the blood of the tyrants fighting under him for the cause of not intentionally destroying the U.S. economy for no reason.

And finally there was this guy -- one of the invited speakers -- who was less interested in bloodshed, but still demanded that President Obama "put the Quran down … get up off his knees, and … figuratively come out with his hands up." His hands don't have to literally be up, because they won't shoot him if he relinquishes the presidency voluntarily.

So this is House conservatives' game changer. These are the people John Boehner is so scared of. Over the weekend, his loose grip on the House slipped completely, and in large part because he's unwilling to cut that faction loose. We know that because Mitch McConnell has suddenly become the lead Republican negotiator and all the action has shifted to the Senate. If McConnell had any confidence that Boehner could pull this off, Boehner would still be at the center of the story. McConnell has a primary challenger. He wants to oppose deals, not cut them. If there were any way for Boehner to get out of the mess on his own, McConnell would have let him try. His return to relevance demonstrates a complete loss of faith in his counterpart.

That's particularly embarrassing for Boehner because there are only three blanks left to fill in.

While that merry band of neo-confederates fantasists marched to the White House, McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid were quibbling. The fight now turns to details that are trivial compared to the consequences of inaction: How large should the debt limit increase be? For how long should Congress extend funding to the government, so it can reopen? And at what funding level?

That's it.

"I have had a productive conversation with the Republican leader this afternoon," Reid said on the floor Sunday evening. "Our discussions were substantive and we'll continue those discussions. I'm optimistic about the prospects for a positive conclusion to the issues before this country today."

Democrats want a large debt limit increase, and a brief stopgap funding bill. Republicans want a small debt limit increase and a funding bill that reopens the government for several months. Democrats would accept the latter, but not at the low annualized spending level ($986 billion) they agreed to for the six-week bill Boehner is refusing to put on the House floor for a vote. They want an opportunity to negotiate over sequestration, and won't be able to do so effectively if its cuts have been locked in for half of the fiscal year with their consent.

After everything Republicans put themselves and the country through, these are the final points of contention. No Obamacare delay. No Medicare cuts. No real hostages. It would be amusing if it weren't so dangerous. We've almost reached the point at which a determined senator could use the chamber's arcane procedural rules to push a deal past October 17.

On Sunday, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told Costa he'll do just that unless he's guaranteed a vote on a measure to strip members and aides of their employer-provided health care compensation. Giving Graham a politically motivated vote like that isn't a huge deal. And if it passed, it would be pretty devastating for some professional political staffers, but the consequences would be limited.

But if Graham gets his way, and other senators treat it as a precedent to start making bigger demands, we might breach the debt limit deadline by accident.

By Brian Beutler

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

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