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The House GOP Wants to Throw a Temper Tantrum, and Boehner Can't Stop Them

Win McNamee/Getty

Here’s the question to ask yourself while watching the government shutdown/debt-limit insanity play out these next few days: Is the congressional GOP a global menace, bent on destruction of an epic scale, or merely a goofy, intermittently-competent-at-best, primarily self-destructive force?

Since Republicans took over the House in early 2011, my assumption has been Choice A, “global menace,” despite some pretty chronic displays of goofiness. Among other things, this has been the basis for my view that our best hope for avoiding a debt default is for John Boehner to shut down the government by holding fast to conservative demands on defunding health care reform, thereby engineering enough political blowback to demonstrate how isolated his lunatics really are, and forcing them to sober up in time to raise the debt limit by the mid-October deadline. In this view, Boehner is a Hurt Locker-esque bomb disabler who must navigate around improvised explosives that will detonate with a single false move.

There are times, however, when the alternative rings far truer—when the clownishness becomes so laughably self-sabotaging you struggle to take these guys seriously. As it happens, Thursday was a prime example. Ever since Boehner bowed to the Tea Partiers and passed a bill that ties government funding to the defunding of health care, it’s been clear that the Senate would reject it. This has left Boehner struggling to come up with a second move, and Thursday he thought he’d found it: Pass a bill that would basically make the GOP’s entire 2012 campaign platform—delaying health care reform, demanding tax reform, gutting environmental regulations, mandating offshore drilling—a condition for raising the debt ceiling.

Although this technically has nothing to do with keeping the government open past the end of the fiscal year on Monday, the thinking was that it would send a credible signal to conservatives that Boehner really intends to take the fight to Obama. With his credibility thus established, Boehner might just be able to get conservatives on board with a tactical surrender in the government funding fight—a clean “continuing resolution” (CR) that funds that government for another few months with no conditions attached (i.e., not defunding of health care reform). This is the sort of funding bill the Senate is about to send back to the House.

From where I sit, this would have been a disastrous outcome had it come to pass. Avoiding a shutdown with the promise of an even bigger fight on the debt ceiling would put us on track for a global financial catastrophe—that’s the likely consequence of a debt default, which is what happens if the ceiling doesn’t get raised. This is much, much worse than the mere unpleasantness of a temporary break in government services that would arise under a shutdown.

Alas, nothing doing for Boehner here. Despite offering conservatives just about every possible inducement to vote for his debt limit bill, the House GOP leadership still didn’t get enough takers, forcing it to abandon the strategy. The problem, apparently, is that conservatives are deeply skeptical of Boehner personally. “Boehner suffers from a ‘trust gap’ among a certain group of his members,” reports Politico. “If Boehner is for it, this faction has to be against it.”

The upshot is to make a shutdown much more likely. Boehner, to compensate for riling up his conservative knuckle-draggers with this ill-fated scheme, was forced to declare that the House won’t adopt the Senate’s clean CR. “I do not see that happening," he said yesterday. That makes it very difficult to resolve the government funding situation before the Monday night deadline (Democrats’ appetite for a non-clean CR is minimal). And so, by the perverse logic I described above, it also makes the world a far safer place, since the stalemate arises in a battle whose consequences (shutdown) are manageable, rather than a battle whose consequences (debt default) are disastrous.

To fully appreciate the poetry of this, it’s worth reviewing our possible road to salvation: First, the lunatics in the House were so determined to stage a confrontation with Obama that they were willing to shut down the government and court a massive backlash in public and elite opinion. Then, in an attempt to save them from this fate, their heroic and noble leadership tried to persuade them to defer these impulses and refocus them on a confrontation (the debt limit) that would have far more destructive consequences, and (in the case of default) earn them still greater amounts of scorn from the public and the media. When the lunatics didn’t go for that, Boehner then tried to bribe them with a laundry list of fantasy items, akin to bribing a 15-year-old male with endless supplies of pizza, video games, and Internet porn. But the lunatics still didn’t go for it because they really wanted to throw their tantrum now, not later, and anyway they weren’t sure Boehner was serious about the pizza and porn. And so, in the internal GOP conflict between pre-modern zealotry and cartoonish levels of cynicism, the zealotry appears to be winning out, to the serendipitous benefit of the rest of us. If these superpowers ever fell into the wrong hands… Crap, forget that thought. Let’s just hope for the best.

Noam Scheiber is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow @noamscheiber