What ‘The Big Lebowski’ tells us about the debt ceiling

September 19, 2013

Two numbers on the debt ceiling stand out in the new Washington Post-ABC News poll.


1998 - SCANNED IN: 03/98 - Left to right: The Dude (Jeff Bridges), Donny (Steve Buscemi) and Walter (John Goodman) listen to the boasting of a rival bowler in the Ethan and Joel Coen film "The Big Lebowski," a Gramercy Pictures release. - Handout Photo. Credit: Merrick Morton/Gramercy Pictures.

The first is 43  -- the percentage of Americans who want Congress to "not raise the debt limit and let the government default on paying its bills and obligations." The second is 73 -- the percentage of people who believe defaulting on bills and obligations would do "serious harm" to the U.S. economy.

Makes no sense right? How could more than 40 percent of Americans support an action that a vast majority of the country believes would do us serious economic harm?

The answer lies with Bunny Lebowski, a character from the genius Coen brothers film "The Big Lebowski." Speaking of a man named Uli swimming in a pool, Bunny says: "Uli doesn't care about anything. He's a nihilist."

The reality -- at least from the Post-ABC poll -- is that there is a nihilistic streak running through a portion of the American populace. Crunch the numbers and you find that almost six in 10 people (59 percent) who say they don't want to raise the debt limit also believe not doing so will cause serious problems for the American economy. The “nihilists,” so to speak, account for 26 percent of all Americans, and half of them lean toward the Republican Party.

The thinking of that group likely goes something like this: Not raising the debt ceiling is a bad thing for the economy. But, the only way to fix the debt and spending problems the United States faces is to force just such a large-scale crisis in hopes that it shocks the American political system into changing its ways. (We could draw a comparison here to how the League of Shadows believes the only way to remake Gotham is to destroy it first, but that would be WAY too nerdy. Right? Right?)

This is, of course, a more appealing view in theory than in practice. As we saw when the United States last butted up against the debt ceiling in the summer of 2011, the consequences in global economic markets are unpredictable and potentially harsh. And while the nihilist crowd believes that refusing to raise the debt ceiling would create short-term pain for long-term gain, there's no telling how long or deep the reverberations might be.

If anything close to the sort of dire consequences predicted by many economists were to come to pass, Congress would almost certainly react by raising the debt ceiling in hopes of plugging the economic dike before it sprang any more leaks. If that came to pass, congressional Republicans would take a potentially catastrophic hit to their brand among virtually every corner of the electorate. The GOP base would be furious that the party rolled over under pressure, while Democrats would fume about Republicans playing politics, and independents would wonder if the party had the country's best interests at heart.

Another plausible explanation for the perplexing numbers is that concern over federal spending rivals the vague and abstract fear of breaching the debt ceiling. The issue is by no means Civics 101: More than half the public said the debt limit issue was hard to understand in a 2011 Pew Research Center poll. And during that year’s debt-limit debate, a Post-Pew Research poll found upwards of seven in 10 people concerned that raising the debt limit would lead to higher government spending and a bigger national debt -- just as many as were concerned about hurting the economy.

The fact that a not insubstantial number of Americans support doing something they believe will cause major problems for the country's economy is a telling reminder of how complicated the politics of fiscal issues have become. Distrust of government runs deep, and the desire to erase it all and start again is a very real sentiment at large in the country.

Fixbits: 

House Republicans are planning on voting Friday on a continuing resolution that would defund Obamacare. The House has canceled an upcoming recess because of the looming budget deadline.

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) is headed to New Hampshire in November.

Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul's wife isn't convinced he should run for president.

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) condemned an anti-Semitic joke a Republican activist told this week.

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) won't rule out running for president.

Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) won't run for the Senate.

Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton said Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D) "has just been entered into the Guinness World Records book as luckiest politician."

Newark Mayor Cory Booker (D) on Tuesday met with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

Emily's List backs Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley (D) for governor.

Must-reads:

"Obama comment on immigration draws anger, frustration" -- David Nakamura, Washington Post

"Business Roundtable’s issues warning on debt limit but says it won’t pick sides" -- Zachary A. Goldfarb, Washington Post

Scott Clement contributed to this post. Clement is a pollster with Capital Insight, the independent polling group of Washington Post Media.

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Aaron Blake | September 18, 2013