September 27, 2013

Republican outrage continues this morning over this quote from White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer to CNN’s Jake Tapper:

The White House “is for cutting spending. We’re for reforming our tax code, for reforming entitlements,” said senior White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer.

“What we’re not for is negotiating with people with a bomb strapped to their chest,” he added.

Republicans claim this constitutes comparing them to terrorists. I agree with Steve Benen here: “As a rule, regardless of where one falls on the political divide, officials should resist the urge to compare their rivals to terrorists. I don’t care how radicalized congressional Republicans have become — they’re not al Qaeda. Period. Full stop.”

Ultimately, though, as Steve also notes, this gives rise to a more fundamental debate about the true nature of what Republicans really are doing right now. The GOP outrage about Pfeiffer’s quote — even if somewhat warranted, and let’s face it, expressing outrage about such stuff is standard currency in politics – gets to a core contradiction, and a core truth, about this whole situation, both of which many observers are refusing to reckon with.

The contradiction is this: Republicans insist they’re not actually threatening default — the comparison to terrorism is outrageous — even as they are insisting that the possibility of a debt ceiling breach gives them leverage to demand concessions in exchange for raising it. For instance, John Boehner has flatly stated that Republicans won’t allow default because: “I’m not going to risk the full faith and credit of the federal government.” And yet, Boehner is asking for a comical list of concessions in exchange for doing what he himself says must happen.

Confronted with this contradiction, GOP sympathizers tend to murmur that the debt ceiling is an appropriate place to negotiate over the budget. Of course, Republicans are asking for a lot more than spending cuts – an Obamacare delay, the rollback of financial regulations, etc. — in exchange for a debt limit hike. But beyond this, Republicans can’t tell you why it is we’re supposed to reward them for raising the debt limit. And that’s because raising the debt limit is not a concession on their part. It doesn’t amount to giving up more in spending; it merely allows payments of debts already incurred. They themselves say it must happen. They themselves say they are not threatening default — that they want to avert it. So why should they get anything in return for averting it, then?

Which is it? Do Dems have to give Republicans something in exchange for not allowing economic havoc to break out, and if so, why isn’t that threatening extensive harm to the country, and to all of us, in order to get your way? Or are Republicans of course going to raise the debt limit in the end, because of course they know it’s the right thing to do, and if so, why do Dems have to give them anything in exchange for it?

The second argument made by Republican sympathizers is that, okay, Republicans will raise the debt limit in the end, but they don’t want to, so it’s still a concession on their part. But why don’t they want to raise it, if they know it must happen to avert economic disaster? The only conceivable answer is that staking out a posture of reluctance to raise it gives them leverage to extract concessions.

This gets to the core truth about this debate: As long as it’s an open question whether Republicans are prepared to allow default, the claim that Republicans are threatening to do extensive harm to the country in order to extort concessions from Dems that a radical faction of their party is demanding is 100 percent right.

On the other hand, if it is not an open question that Republicans are prepared to allow default — that in the end, John Boehner will definitely raise the debt limit with support from Democrats when it comes down to it, because he knows it must happen — then why are we even having this discussion at all?

The GOP position on the debt limit is comically untenable, but a lot of observers have politely pretended not to notice the glaring contradiction at the heart of it. And so, Republicans can express outrage about the “bomb” analogy safe in the knowledge that they will not be pressed to clarify whether they are or aren’t threatening harm to the country to get their way.

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