January 17, 2013

Guess what: Even the Tea Party Express now acknowledges the debt ceiling will have to be raised. And this gets to a broader point about this whole mess — that the only way out  is for the GOP to revamp its strategy entirely and drop the threat of default as leverage — but more on that later.

First, the Tea Party Express. Yesterday Glenn Kessler did a demolition job on the Tea Party Express’ recent claim that Obama was full of “baloney” when he argued we must pay the bills for things Congress has already approved. The Tea Party Express had claimed obligations to entitlements and the military “can all be met without an immediate rise in the debt ceiling.” Kessler pointed out that this is mathematical nonsense.

The group objected. It emailed Kessler a statement explaining it favors temporarily raising the debt ceiling, and were only objecting to Obama’s insistence that it must be raised permanently. “There are cash flow issues that might necessitate a temporary debt ceiling increase, which would then be reduced when tax revenues balloon in March and April,” it conceded. “We are not opposed to responsibly meeting essential obligations.”

It’s unclear what the stuff about reducing the debt ceiling again later means, but the bottom line is clear: Even the Tea Party Express concedes the debt ceiling will have to be raised to avoid defaulting on “essential obligations,” which the group effectively acknowledges is not an option. In making this concession, the Tea Party Express joins a long line of GOP officials, GOP-aligned groups, and GOP-friendly media figures who are admitting that the threat of default does not give the party leverage.

This gets to the broader point. There’s something deeply absurd about all the micro-strategizing about how to make the debt ceiling standoff work in the GOP’s favor. We’ve seen all manner of suggestions for ways the party can gain leverage from the threat of default. There’s a temporary debt ceiling hike. There’s raising it in increments (as John Boehner has threatened). There’s the House GOP passing a bill with only deep entitlement cuts and a debt limit hike, and daring Dems to oppose it (as former Bush official Keith Hennesy suggests today, though this would require outlining deep specific cuts).

But the problem with the debt ceiling hostage taking as a strategy isn’t in the execution. The problem is the hostage taking itself.

The basic situation is this: Republicans want to use the threat of extreme damage to the economy to force Dems to give them the spending cuts they want and to avoid compromising on more revenues. At the same time, Republicans don’t want the public to figure out that they’re threatening to harm the country to avoid compromising with Democrats. If it becomes clear that Republicans risk taking a massive political hit in the event of default, it also becomes clear they aren’t really prepared to let it happen. This in turn reduces the GOP’s leverage and undermines the whole strategy.

The problem is that the American people already know that Republicans have adopted an intransigent and destructive approach to governing. It wasn’t hard to figure this out, since Republicans, in pursuing their uncompromising hostage strategy, are demonstrating plainly that they are pursuing an uncompromising hostage strategy. The American people don’t like this. The latest Post poll shows 67 percent of Americans think the GOP isn’t compromising enough; 58 percent think the debt ceiling question should be considered separately from spending cuts; and only 22 percent want default or a government shutdown if a deal can’t be reached. Other polls show overwhelming opposition to the deep entitlements cuts the GOP wants.

No amount of tweaking this strategy will change this basic dynamic. The trouble is that the American people are rejecting the overall approach itself. Conservative writer Philip Klein says the same thing, conceding the standoff has become a loser for Republicans: “They should give Obama his debt limit increases without preconditions, and they shouldn’t allow any government shutdowns.” That might allow the GOP to reboot and wage a straight fight over the size of government.

Republicans need to accept the inevitable: Either agree to a clean debt ceiling hike, or accept the need to compromise, agree to a deal with revenues that can pass the House with Dems, and attach a debt ceiling hike to that. The easiest way out of this hostage crisis is for Republicans to release the hostage.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.