September 24, 2013
(Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
(Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

Today there seems to be some pushback, notably over at Wonkblog, against the idea that we probably won’t get a government shutdown or a debt limit breach. They may be right that the conventional wisdom has grown too complacent; there certainly is a real chance that Republicans in Congress could yet stumble into a calamity.

I think, however, that it’s not likely.

In particular, Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas make the point that, unlike in 2011, there are no ongoing negotiations leading up to this showdown. That’s true! But it may be less of a problem than they think. Leading into 2011, there was broad agreement that Something Should Be Done on the deficit, and the White House accepted early on that the Something would be attached to the debt limit increase. They then negotiated, only to discover that it was hard to cut a deal when neither side could reliably deliver the votes.

This time around, there’s no negotiations because, essentially, Republicans have talked themselves into making an impossible demand (on the CR, that is; reports have it that they will also make a set of impossible demands on the debt limit).

It’s possible that this means the sides are far apart and we’ll get a disaster. But it’s also possible that the reason there’s no negotiations is that none are needed; the impossible demands are there for show — for forcing votes which can then be used in the next election cycle. Indeed, if that’s what’s really going on, there’s nothing at all wrong with that part of it.

Remember: The only reason that it would make sense to go over either of these cliffs is if one side believes that its bargaining position improves on the other side. It may be accurate, or it may be a miscalculation, but if neither side believes that they are helped, then they won’t want to go there. And, indeed, it’s pretty evident that most Republicans, for all of Sen. Ted Cruz’s bluster, really don’t think they will get their demands after a shutdown (and with good reason). The key as always to thinking about these things: Everyone knows that eventually something will pass that both Speaker Boehner (and mainstream Republicans) and President Obama (and mainstream Democrats) support. Simply putting that off for the sake of putting it off just doesn’t make sense.

Yes, it’s possible we’ll get a shutdown or a debt limit breach even if most people on both sides don’t want it, just because someone along the way miscalculates the path away from it. And it does complicate things that a significant faction of Republicans probably does want to go over a cliff — but then again it was never likely that those Republicans would support the eventual deal, so that shouldn’t actually change Boehner’s calculations. However, the most likely outcome is still probably getting out of this without any disaster.