Paul Ryan's debt ceiling hypocrisy: Mr. Realism returns to extortion

The "grown-up" who helped broker a budget deal is now threatening arbitrary default if he doesn't get new demands

Published December 16, 2013 4:11PM (EST)


That nice young boy scout down the street who's offered to fix America's finances, Paul Ryan, is now something even grander after putting aside impractical, ideological GOP goals in securing a budget deal. Why, he's America's breath of fresh air! He and his main man John Boehner are finally kicking the far right in the teeth to make Washington work again. No more foolhardy shutdown quests, no; from now on, everything's gonna run so smoothly, we just ... you just ... oh it's gonna be ...


The GOP wants concessions from Democrats in exchange for not allowing the U.S. to default on its debts this spring, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said on Fox News Sunday.

"We as a caucus -- along with our Senate counterparts -- are going to meet and discuss what it is we’re going to want out of the debt limit," Ryan said. “We don’t want nothing out of this debt limit. We’re going to decide what it is we’re going to accomplish out of this debt limit fight.”

Ryan said the party will make up its mind on its list of demands at a coming retreat. "We’re going to meet in our retreats after the holidays and discuss exactly what it is we’re going to try to get for this," he said.

That's right: Put your pants back on, countrymen; there are hours in the day yet.

One of Ryan's chief talking points in selling the modest budget deal has been that it averts another catastrophic (for his party, among other things) government shutdown. Another has been obvious realism: that Republican control of the House of Representatives isn't enough on its own to execute conservatives' ideological wish list, no matter the pressure point. “We are in the majority here in the House," he said last week. "We’re one-third of the so-called power structure here in Washington, and we think it would be a bad idea to have two government shutdown scenarios in 2014." Not that complicated.

Then there's the other reason the GOP has for avoiding budget drama: keeping the focus on Obamacare, which remains unpopular. In other words, continuing to press its message on the grounds where it might be having some effect and -- and what a novel idea this is -- staying clear of unnecessarily catastrophic self-imposed mistakes like government shutdowns over nothing. Ryan alluded to this reasoning, too, on "Meet the Press" Sunday:

On our side of the aisle, we like the fact for the economy, no shutdowns. We also don’t want to have shutdown drama so we can focus on replacing Obamacare, so we can focus on showing better ideas and what this is coming in. Cause we don’t think people like this law and we don’t think it’s gonna get any more popular.

The budget deal is (more or less) acceptable to Democrats in Congress, it prevents a shutdown, there's nothing spectacular the GOP could get without the Senate and/or White House, and the party can continue focusing on Obamacare where it believes it has an advantage. A capitol-R Reasonable defense of the budget deal from Ryan.

So why the dickens do those exact same reasons not apply equally, or if anything more, to choosing whether to pick a fight over the debt ceiling? "Risking arbitrary default because why the hell not! ...??" is one of those unnecessarily catastrophic self-imposed mistakes you were just warning people about, Ryan. It's the worst of them! It is worse than whatever other worst thing the government could do.

Ryan is at least consistent in this weird hangup of his about waging debt ceiling battles. As Salon's Brian Beutler reminded readers last week, Ryan "never really cast his lot with the Obamacare defunders. But back in the summer, he was a leading advocate of the view that Republicans should use the debt limit to force Obama to agree to a budget on GOP terms."

Now he's a leading advocate of the view that Republicans should use the debt limit to force Obama to agree to ... something ... GOP-ey. They're going to discuss it in their "retreats." Along what lines will they be thinking, though? It can't be budget demands; they just passed Paul Ryan's two-year budget overwhelmingly. Maybe an Xbox One? Or a Playstation 4? An Xbox One and a Playstation 4?? NO, NO, EVEN BETTER: a $20 gift certificate to the Sizzler. (Some spare change?)

They could try for other non-budget wish-list goodies related to, say, tax reform instructions or regulatory changes. But you'd have to guess that they'll want something related to Obamacare. And the last time they demanded changes to Obamacare under the threat of default, that didn't go so well for them. And so it's impossible to square these two Paul Ryans: the one with all of the realistic opinions about why cutting a non-perfect budget deal was necessary versus the one who wants to screw around with the debt default. Maybe it was meant as a short-term sop to right-wingers -- don't worry, we've got this other thing coming right around the corner in February, and we'll fight good'n then -- but Ryan should be smart enough to know that his words today have imposed certain expectations on his conference that won't easily be forgotten.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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Debt Ceiling Gop John Boehner Paul Ryan Republican Party The Right U.s. House Of Representatives