Dana Milbank
Opinion writer May 18, 2012

John Boehner thinks it’s kind of funny. “It struck me as somewhat comical,” he told reporters Thursday morning, “that, you know, people are looking to me like I’m the guy carrying a sword around town, I’m going to bludgeon someone.”

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000. View Archive

Well, Mr. Speaker, maybe that’s because your rapier keeps setting off the metal detectors.

The bludgeon Boehner wields is his threat to revive the default standoff of last summer, a showdown that shattered consumer confidence and helped stall the economic recovery.

In a speech Tuesday, Boehner said that “allowing America to default,” while not such a hot idea, would be better than raising the debt ceiling without “dramatic steps to reduce spending.” Added Boehner: “We shouldn’t dread the debt limit. We should welcome it. It’s an action-forcing event in a town that has become infamous for inaction.”

By his own account, Boehner was reprising a speech — and a line in the sand — that he delivered before the last, disastrous standoff. As I watched him defend his position in the House TV studio Thursday morning, I had an uncomfortable thought: Does Boehner want the economy to tank?

My instinct says that he does not, that his concern for Americans’ suffering trumps his party’s interests. And yet there’s no denying that more economic trouble would boost Republicans’ political interest. If Boehner goes to the brink and secures new spending cuts, he wins. If he fails, and his brinkmanship sets off a crisis, he still wins, because the resulting drop in confidence will slow the economy and injure the incumbent president.

This possibility is more than theoretical. During the last default showdown, the Conference Board’s consumer confidence index fell precipitously to the lowest level in more than two years. Analysts cited the debt-ceiling standoff as a factor.

Of course, it’s a time-honored tradition to disparage the economy when you’re in the opposition. I covered a hearing in early 2008, before the financial collapse, when Democrats spoke of “hemorrhaging” and “crisis” and then-Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson complained bitterly that they were trying to talk down the economy. But Boehner goes beyond talking down and approaches the realm of precipitating a crisis.

On Thursday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi complained that the other side is willing to “risk the full faith and credit of the United States. . . . It already can be damaging, just the fact that it’s brought up. I think we should snuff it out immediately.”

House Republicans have strategic reasons for precipitating a fight over the debt. In its absence, they have been debating issues on the Democrats’ turf, such as the Violence Against Women Act (Republicans passed a face-saving alternative to the Democrats’ version) and renewing the Export-Import Bank (93 House Republicans broke with their leaders).

On Thursday, conservatives on Capitol Hill were grumbling over a report by Politico that, if the Supreme Court invalidates the Obamacare health reforms, Republican leaders would attempt to reinstate some of the more popular pieces of the legislation.

Returning the discussion to a debt-limit showdown reunites Republicans. But at what cost? I asked Boehner’s spokesman, Michael Steel, whether the speaker worried that the showdown talk would rattle markets and consumers. “If you go back and read the S&P report” when the U.S. debt was downgraded, he said, “it was the failure to come to a more comprehensive agreement to deal with the deficit and debt that caused the downgrade, not the debate over raising the debt limit.”

True, Standard & Poor’s said that last summer’s budget deal “falls short” of what would stabilize the debt. But the rating agency also noted that the downgrade reflected “our view that the effectiveness, stability and predictability of American policymaking and political institutions have weakened.”

Nobody doubts the need to address the debt, but Boehner’s moves won’t dispel worries about stability and predictability. He began his weekly news conference with dire warnings (“disastrous default . . . wet blanket over our economy”). Despite more ominous words, he took issue with the notion that his earlier speech on the debt limit was about “brinkmanship.”

So what was it about? Politico’s Jake Sherman, reminding Boehner of his previous statement that it would be “hard to put Humpty Dumpty back together again” on a debt deal, asked what had changed. “I live for hope,” Boehner said with a smile, allowing that he doesn’t “underestimate the difficulty.”

Fox News’ Chad Pergram asked Boehner whether he saw any “realistic” possibility of a vote on the debt limit before the election. “I’m not underestimating the difficulty,” Boehner repeated. “All I’m suggesting is that the conversations could start.”

And so can the panic.

danamilbank@washpost.com