Whether or not he can make it stick in any meaningful way, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) revealed on Tuesday that Republicans still have an appetite for debt limit brinksmanship — even after the last round nearly crippled the economy, and left the GOP’s congressional approval ratings in the sewer.
When Republicans went home for recess last August, after placing the country’s AAA credit rating at risk, and narrowly avoiding a self-imposed default on the national debt, they caught such an earful from constituents that they spent several weeks toning down their rhetoric and avoiding big public spats with Democrats.
So what gives? Why would Republicans signal to voters that they want to put the country through the same fiasco again — particularly when the outcome of the presidential election remains in doubt and Boehner’s House Republicans are already expected to lose several seats?
There are several plausible, in some ways self-reinforcing, explanations. And they all reflect the degree to which the Republican Party has been radicalized and behaves as if it’s in the midst of an insurgency. But they don’t change the fact that selling the public — and more to the point, voters in swing districts — on the idea of a Christmas-time debt limit fight is going to be deadly politics.
Protecting The Bush Tax Cuts
This is a generational imperative for the GOP. The 2001 and 2003 Bush cuts are key to the decades-long conservative goal of redistributing wealth further up the income ladder and rolling back the federal government’s role in providing social services. All of the cuts are scheduled to expire at the end of the year, and if President Obama wins in November, he’ll have a lot of leverage to demand that the Republicans own up to the results and allow the cuts for high-income earners to expire. Or Obama could let them all expire and then introduce the “Obama tax cuts” on day one of his second administration … unless the GOP had an ace up its sleeve. If the debt limit needs to be raised in December, the GOP could take it hostage and demand that Democrats renew all the Bush tax cuts, and defuse automatic spending cuts (the so-called “sequester”) with cuts to other domestic programs. It’s an almost unfathomable threat, but trying, if Obama wins, might be their only hope.
Laying The Groundwork For The Election
In a way, Boehner’s redrawn line in the sand suggests Republicans aren’t all that confident they’ll take the presidency in 2012. After all, why would they want to create a huge, unnecessary mess for Mitt Romney? If they were pretty sure he was going to win, they wouldn’t. But in the run-up to the election, it will help clarify for voters what the Republican agenda is: low taxes, deep cuts to domestic spending programs, and a take-no-prisoners approach to achieving it. To this end, Boehner plans to pass a full extension of the Bush tax cuts later this year and blame Dems for their looming expiration.
If they run on this and lose, they’d be testing the limits of democratic accountability to press ahead with the debt-limit strategy anyhow — especially in a lame duck session. But if they run on it and win then they’ll have a fair claim to make dramatic changes to how the federal government collects and spends money.
Boehner’s big announcement Tuesday was almost certainly conceived in the same cramped box his unruly conference has kept him in since the first day of his speakership. His conservative members are still bloodthirsty, and untrusting of the leadership. He’s had countless fights with them blow up in his face over the past year and a half, and they’ve defected from some of his key, successful initiatives by the dozens. To make matters worse for him, his party is expected to lose House seats in November. If Boehner’s fighting for his speakership, this is a way to make a final appeal to the radicals in his party. But it comes at the expense of his vulnerable, more risk-averse members. The irony is that his plan to stave off a leadership fight might ultimately cost him more seats in November.
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.