Autumn in Washington: There Will Be Blood

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Guru Meditation:

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Photo: JIM LO SCALZO/Corbis

In the most immediate sense, the prospects for chaos and dysfunction this fall are diminishing, The Republican Establishment is deeply alarmed at the incipient right-wing crusade to insist on shutting down the federal government unless President Obama agrees to defund the Affordable Care Act, and is pushing back aggressively and effectively. Eric Cantor informed Republicans last week he wouldn’t support a shutdown, and the party appears to be backing slowly away from the brink.

But there are two reasons why the calming trend may be merely temporary. The first is that the terms of the debate within the GOP are so extreme that, in order to take on the most implacable fanatics, the forces of relative moderation have themselves ventured far out into the delusional. The growing “moderate” alternative to the demands by Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, and Heritage Action for America to defund Obamacare is a proposal endorsed by Grover Norquist and other conservative worthies to delay Obamacare.

The argument for “delay,” as Peter Suderman explains in Reason, is that defunding the law “left no room for negotiation,” while delay “is a more plausible ask.” But while it may be more plausible, it’s still completely implausible. The “delay” position holds that Republicans should agree to keep the federal government’s lights on for one more year in return for delaying the implementation of Obamacare for one year. But what’s going to happen after that year? They’ll demand another delay, of course, and if history is any guide, transform the principle that the government can only be kept open for as long as Obamacare is shut down into a sacred principle.

Suderman concedes that Norquist’s “compromise” is itself highly unlikely. But the fact that it’s being presented as a fallback position itself dramatizes the trouble with the party’s right-versus-far-right internal dynamic. What is in reality the dissipating of revolutionary fantasies feels to conservatives like a process of constant retreat, with each “surrender” bolstering the right’s determination to avoid future surrenders.

This poisonous dynamic aggravates the second problem: There are several other opportunities for surrender on the horizon, and thus numerous chances for conservative anger over the party’s “retreat” on defunding Obamacare to be channeled into further demands for brinksmanship. The most disturbing passage I’ve read in weeks was tucked into a report by National Review’s Robert Costa, who conveys — in the course of reporting the party’s backing away from shutting down the government over Obamacare — that it may instead refuse to lift the debt ceiling over Obamacare:

Sources tell me the House GOP will probably avoid using a shutdown as leverage and instead use the debt limit and sequester fights as areas for potential legislative trades. Negotiations over increasing the debt limit have frequently been used to wring concessions out of the administration, so there may be movement in that direction: Delay Obamacare in exchange for an increased debt limit.

This is actually even more dangerous than shutting down the government. A government shutdown is disruptive, but can be endured. Nobody knows just what would happen if Congress were to default on payments to holders of Treasury bills, but it could be catastrophic, and at the very least would probably spur bondholders to demand a premium from Washington for years or decades to come. Republicans here are talking themselves out of using a conventional bomb and instead using a nuclear bomb.

Now, they may — and likely will — settle on a less grandiose ransom demand than delaying Obamacare in return for lifting the debt ceiling. But here, again, the opening terms of the debate lie so far to the right that it’s impossible to drag them back into sane territory. The administration’s position is that it won’t negotiate the debt ceiling at all — that Congress simply has to lift it, like it always has in the past, rather than entangle it in the brinksmanship of ideological debate. Any Republican ransom demand will trigger a standoff with potentially dangerous ramifications.

And of course all this is proceeding in an atmosphere of rancid distrust between the party’s base and its leadership, which is poised on a hair-trigger fear of instigating a coup. Conservatives have already forced John Boehner to publicly promise not to bring any immigration bill to a vote without majority support among House Republicans. These promises don’t fully satisfy National Review’s editors, who today demand he take what they call a “blood-oath commitment to oppose any conference committee.”

Do they mean that metaphorically? Literally? Who knows. The blood-dimmed tide is about to be loosed.