Why the Shutdown Is Leading to Debt Default; or, What Happens When You Take Hostages Without a Plan

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Photo: Working Title/Polygram/The Kobal Collection

The federal government shutdown, while important, is a dry run for the potentially cataclysmic debt-ceiling standoff. What does it portend? Evidence can be found for both alarm and complacency, but the preponderance of proof seems to lie on the side of freaking out.

The good news is that, as Robert Costa reports, John Boehner views the upcoming debt-ceiling fight as a reason to stay in the good graces of his Ted Cruz wing for now — “with a major debt-limit battle approaching, he can’t let a CR vote divide his conference.” This would imply that Boehner understands that he will have to abandon the defunders on the debt ceiling. Otherwise, he’d be worried about alienating restive moderates.

But, in general, the shutdown has confirmed the darkest fears of the alarmists.

I’ve been ringing alarms for months about the House careening anarchically into disastrous conflagrations, but even I never thought the chances of a shutdown — which so obviously violated Republican self-interest — exceeded 50 percent. The House leadership has evinced every tic of classic aggressive blunderers. The House leaders fell into their approach, being driven by internal political logic rather than any coherent strategy. They have no plan for success except hoping the opponent capitulates, without having any reason to believe it will happen. They have even fallen for the classic fallacy of believing they have already given up too much to back out now without a reward:

"In the government funding battle, the issue that sparked it all, Obamacare, was no longer center stage less than 24 hours after the shutdown began,” Byron York likewise reports: “The fight is now about the shutdown itself, and Obamacare has been pushed to the side.”

Reading accounts of internal Republican deliberations is like reading histories of World War I or Vietnam.

A second problem is that a minority of conservatives pressured Boehner into shutting down the government, against the urgent pleas of a large segment of movement conservatives. But the right’s divisions over the shutdown fight have given way to near unanimity over the debt-ceiling fight. Conservative discourse on the debt ceiling is a chorus of cheering belligerence. I’ve seen no conservatives consider the possibility that Democrats actually believe their stated position, which is that giving in to debt-ceiling extortion would pave the way for endless future extortion and an eventual debt breach. They assert over and over that Democrats will fold, and seem to believe this.

Some Republicans do feel compelled to pretend that their debt-ceiling extortion scheme is standard practice. The Daily Caller digs deep into the historical record to excavate previous examples of Congress using the debt ceiling to extract concessions; Dave Weigel demolishes that as myth. Paul Ryan, reprising his role as spokesman for fresh-faced earnest wonkery, insists the debt ceiling is nothing more than a swell way to bring folks together. Like a parade!

"That's what we think we need. A forcing action to bring two parties together," Ryan said. "We don't want to close the government down. We want it open. But we want fairness..."

Except the action to “bring the two parties together” was when the Senate Budget Committee spent all summer pleading for a conference with the House, and Ryan refused. Why did he refuse? Because Ryan’s explicit plan from the outset was to create a situation where he could use threats to force Democrats to cough up concessions without making any concessions of his own. Or, as he now calls this, “fairness.”

I just want everybody to be friends.Photo: John W. Adkisson/2012 Getty Images

At least Ryan feels compelled to lie about his extortionist intent. Much of the conservative defense of debt-ceiling extortion has abandoned any such pretense and veers into outright sociopathy. Here is Ted Cruz:

“Everyone agrees that the debt ceiling is going to be raised,” Cruz told CNBC’s Larry Kudlow in an interview tonight.

“The question,” he continued, “is whether Harry Reid and the president will maintain the same negotiating position they have on the continuing resolution, which is we will bargain for nothing, give us 100 percent of what we want or we will threaten a default.” 

If “everybody agrees” on raising the debt ceiling, why should one side have to surrender to the other side for them to agree? According to Cruz, raising the debt ceiling gives Democrats 100 percent of what they want, but it’s also something he claims Republicans want. Cruz posits that Democrats are threatening default by refusing to pay a ransom in return for Republicans doing something they concede is completely necessary.

Meanwhile, former Bush administration speechwriter Marc Thiessen urges the party to release the government hostage and instead jack up its demand for the debt ceiling. “[O]ne of the first things they teach you in Hostage Taking 101 is that you have to choose a hostage the other side cares about saving,” Thiessen complains. By contrast, a debt-ceiling breach would potentially destroy millions of jobs, making it the perfect threat:

Obama will not permit an economic crisis worse than 2008-09 and the “loss of millions of American jobs” on his watch. He has no choice but to negotiate with GOP leaders and cut a deal to avoid a government default.

Okay, first of all, is “Hostage Taking 101” an actual course of study taught to members of the Bush administration? Even if this is a metaphor, it seems like a problematic model for governance. Also, Thiessen argues that Obama will have to give concessions to avoid a debt breach because he cares about the loss of millions of jobs. That seems to imply that Republicans don’t care. After all, if Republicans cared just as much, Obama could be threatening to veto the debt-ceiling hike if Republicans didn’t give him concessions.

Boehner does not seem to share his party’s sociopathic embrace of hostage tactics. Boehner resembles William H. Macy’s character in Fargo, who concocts a simple plan to have his wife kidnapped and skim the proceeds, failing to think a step forward about what happens once she’s actually seized by violent criminals. He doesn’t intend for her to be harmed, but also has no ability to control the plan once he’s set it in motion. In the end, Boehner's Speakership is likely to end up in the wood chipper, anyway.