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Paul Ryan Used to Think Blowing Past the Debt Limit Was No Big Deal

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

After wavering for two weeks, and negotiating backward from the criteria he’d set for his candidacy, Representative Paul Ryan has agreed to run for House Speaker—which is to say he’s overwhelmingly likely to be elected House Speaker later this month.

The development came as a relief to institutional Washington, which is ill equipped to absorb the consequences of lengthy power vacuums. Even Harry Reid, the Senate Minority Leader, endorsed Ryan’s candidacy, calling himself a “fan.”

"He appears to be one of the people over there that could be reasonable. I mean, look at some of the other people," Reid told reporters. "I don't agree with him on much of what he does. I think what he's done with Medicare and Medicaid, what he wants to do with it, I disagree with. But generally speaking, I think we've been able to work with him."

Ryan’s reputation for reasonableness stems largely from the bipartisan agreement he struck with Senator Patty Murray to fund the government, and increase annual spending levels, after Republicans shut down the government in 2013. That deal marked a departure for him, and an admirable one, but it has helped conceal a nonchalance about the risk of defaulting on the debt—both before and since the shutdown—that bordered on recklessness. This isn’t simply historical trivia. The Republican party’s opposition strategy to the Obama presidency entailed shattering a wide array of norms that governed both the House and Senate. As that era draws to a close, and creates an opening for a new era of unified GOP control, Republicans are finding it difficult to reimpose those norms without creating a level of dissent that makes their caucuses ungovernable.

The deadline to increase the debt limit is November 3, and while the current speaker, John Boehner, has alluded to the possibility that he’ll increase the debt limit unilaterally before he retires, there’s still a non-trivial chance that the onus will ultimately fall on Ryan in his first days at the helm. The question of whether he considers November 3 a firm deadline is one of extraordinary significance.

Ryan's spokesman Brenan Buck emails that Ryan "believes the date is the date." But he didn't always. Back in 2011 a significant faction of the House Republican conference—approximately the same faction that ultimately deposed Boehner—denied that a lapse in borrowing authority posed immense risk to the U.S. economy and global markets. House leaders disagreed with these members, and ended up at pains to convince them that the stakes of the fight over the debt limit were extremely high.

Ryan actually made that task more difficult. In May of 2011, citing investors and economists whom he trusted, he argued that exceeding the deadline to increase the debt limit by “a day or two or three or four” would be preferable to increasing it on time, but without securing deep cuts to domestic spending programs. "What is more important is that you're putting the government in a materially better position to be able to pay their bonds later on,” he said.

Circumstances are materially different enough today for Ryan to claim tha his old views are no longer operative. The government’s fiscal position, both short and long term, is significantly stronger today than it was then. Four years ago, Obama was hoping to reach a multi-trillion dollar budget-consolidation agreement with House Republicans. Today, he’s unwilling to negotiate around the debt limit at all. And at any rate, the debt limit fight that year caused measurable damage to the economy.

But explanations along these lines will ring hollow to conservatives, who will recall that Ryan was among the 199 Republicans who voted against an unconditional debt limit increase back in February 2014.

As speaker, Ryan will have institutional imperatives not to shirk governing obligations, and a personal imperative not to begin his speakership by provoking a massive economic crisis. More factors point to a straightforward resolution to this debt limit impasse than point away from it. But the ideological and strategic drift of the party during the Obama years will eventually manifest in some uncomely way. The people who precipitated the Republican party’s radicalization are now becoming its leaders.