Washington is poised for a big fight over credibility, as Congress debates the appropriate American response to Syrian chemical weapons. Some observers have speculated that the vote will expose important divisions within the GOP, which seems entirely possible.
Meanwhile, however, another issue seems even more likely to expose Republican infighting. Arguments over the federal debt ceiling are almost certain to separate reasonable Republicans from their party’s radical fringe.
And that would be good for everyone.
The debt ceiling debate has featured lots of talk about “leverage,” especially from the GOP leadership. “What I'm trying to do here is to leverage the political process to produce more change than what it would produce if left to its own devices," explained House Speaker John Boehner in recent remarks.
Leverage is all well and good, but levers need a fulcrum to get the job done. In today's debt limit debate, that fulcrum is default. If Republicans are prepared to drive the nation over the brink, then they have a powerful lever to extract concessions from a level-headed White House. But if they aren't, then all they have is a big stick – useful for playacting but not much else.
Josh Barro, among others, thinks the GOP is bluffing. In demanding spending cuts as the price of a debt ceiling hike, the party is making an empty threat, he contends.
- If Republicans were to stage another debt ceiling showdown over entitlement reform, they would have to (1) threaten to cause an economic crisis unless (2) they are given a package of reforms that many Republican officials don't even want, which (3) would also happen to be hugely unpopular with voters.
What are the chances that Republicans will go down that road? Barro is pretty clear about his level of concern:
- This. Is. Never. Going. To. Happen.
Given such statements, Boehner is left with a pretty weak hand. Even if you discount his past words, Boehner’s past actions suggest he will eventually cave -- as he did as recently as last December.
Of course, there’s always the chance that House Republicans will live up to their billing as the party’s lunatic fringe and force the nation to the brink of disaster. They could stage a revolt and refuse to join Boehner in his inevitable (but responsible) retreat from disaster.
Even then, however, it’s unlikely that the nation will actually default on its obligations, since Democrats would join with a handful of relatively moderate (or just non-crazy) Republicans to pass a debt limit extension. Brian Beutler of Salon has outlined the scenario:
- Boehner introduces legislation that both increases (or extends) the debt limit and includes some goodies for conservatives that make the bill a non-starter with Senate Democrats and the President (maybe a year-long delay of the individual mandate — let your imaginations run wild); that bill fails on the House floor; everyone panics; faced with no better option, Boehner breaks the Hastert rule, puts a tidy, Senate-passed debt limit bill on the floor, and we all dress up as Speaker Pelosi for Halloween.
But the debt debate will still be important. Almost certainly, it will widen evident rifts within the Republican party. That’s a bad thing for the GOP over the short term; it can only hasten the party's electoral marginalization, at least outside the South. But internal strife might be a good thing for Republicans over the long run. As long as the party engages in empty theatrics, it will do precious little governing. And Americans will not tolerate unalloyed posturing forever.
By exposing GOP theatrics for what they are, the debt debate might empower more moderate voices in the GOP. That, in turn, could reverse the party's steady retreat into extremist irrelevance and give voters some real -- still realistic -- choices in the years ahead.