Michele Bachmann’s defaulty logic

Dana Milbank
Opinion writer July 13, 2011

When Michele Bachmann was asked during a television interview last week whether she thought higher unemployment would increase her chances of winning the presidency, she gave an unexpectedly candid reply: “I hope so.”

Now she’s putting that theory to the test. On Wednesday, she argued that failure to raise the debt limit — a prospect that even Republican congressional leaders say could lead to economic catastrophe — might not be such a bad thing.

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

“This is a misnomer that I believe that the president and the Treasury secretary have been trying to pass off on the American people, and it’s this: that if Congress fails to raise the debt ceiling by $2.5 trillion, that somehow the United States will go into default and we will lose the full faith and credit of the United States. That is simply not true.”

To prove it, she and two Republican House colleagues — Steve King (Iowa) and Louie Gohmert (Tex.) — announced legislation that would require the federal government, in a debt-ceiling crisis, to prioritize payments to the troops and to U.S. creditors.

With Bachmann sharing the stage, King explained that the government could pay creditors and the military and fund Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid without increasing the debt limit. “My response would echo that,” Bachmann added.

Of course, this list omitted items such as veterans’ benefits, unemployment insurance, homeland and border security, the FBI, federal prisons, and air traffic control.

No biggie, said King. He offered that he has heard no convincing argument that refusing to increase the debt ceiling would lead to financial ruin. “The answer I get back after I press that is no one knows,” he said, “and no one has the nerve to find out, because we’ll do anything to avoid such a scenario.”

Until now, that is. The Bachmann-King-Gohmert plan, similar to those floated by other conservatives, is the economic equivalent of the old Cold War strategy in the event of a nuclear attack: If we just duck and cover, maybe it won’t be so bad.

To some extent, irrationality persists on both sides. Senate Democrats, rather than doing useful work, have been debating a pointless “sense of the Senate” resolution that millionaires should pay more in taxes.

But Republicans have a bigger problem. Even when leaders attempt to be responsible — both House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have said that default is not an option — they are being undercut by their rank and file.

McConnell, on Laura Ingraham’s radio show, warned the zealots within his own ranks not to trifle with default. “It destroys your brand,” he said. “If we go into default, [Obama] will say that Republicans are making the economy worse and try to convince the public, maybe with some merit, if people start not getting their Social Security checks and military families start maybe getting letters saying service people overseas don’t get paid. It’s an argument he could have a good chance of winning.”

To address that problem, McConnell has proposed the cynical solution of basically doing nothing to reduce the debt until after the elections in November 2012. This, naturally, has caused some of the ideologues, including the Bachmann-Gohmert-King trio, to dig in further.

When Bloomberg’s Jim Rowley asked them about the McConnell plan at a news conference Wednesday, King laughed and cut Rowley off. “I think that’s the fox in the henhouse, and I’m really apprehensive about such a proposal,” he said.

“I’m ‘no’ on raising the debt ceiling,” Bachmann added, and then she pivoted into a stump speech about her presidential campaigning in Iowa.

Gohmert was so stirred by the moment that he quoted FDR — twice — before invoking lessons from the War of 1812. He suggested that the administration could avoid default by selling off assets. “You have land. You’ve got leases,” he said. “There are all kinds of assets.” Gohmert said Obama is “taking advice and information from somebody apparently who is willing to lie” by warning of the dangers of default.

Fox News’s Chad Pergram pointed out that Boehner, too, has warned that the debt limit must be increased. “Do you think the speaker of the House is not telling the truth?”

“I guess the problem with the speaker and him saying that is he believed the president,” Gohmert replied. “And I would encourage the speaker not to believe the president anymore when the president says things like that.”

Bachmann shared Gohmert’s view that “we need to be truthful.” And the truth is, if she succeeds in blocking a debt-limit increase, the resulting economic collapse will improve her 2012 prospects — just as she hoped.

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