Why Obama can’t assume Republicans will ever make a deal on the debt ceiling.

For all the patriotic prattle about American exceptionalism, last night was a moment when our national politics seemed borrowed from the comic-opera irrelevance of Berlusconi’s Italy.

The Sarah Palin-Donald Trump pizza-parlor summit in Manhattan, of course, will be remembered as the greatest meeting of political minds since Thomas Jefferson dined alone. But far more serious than the mountebank munching at Famous Famiglia in Times Square was the lopsided 318-97 House vote rejecting raising the federal debt limit to $16.7 trillion to avoid an early August default.

It is tempting to dismiss the House vote as a premature burst of towel snapping before the real negotiations begin with the countdown clock ticking in late July. Speaker John Boehner delivered a unanimous GOP vote against raising the debt ceiling to demonstrate resolve on the eve of Barack Obama’s meeting with House Republicans. The National Republican Congressional Committee—the political arm of the House Republicans—gleefully sent out more than 50 virtually identical press releases in advance, denouncing Democratic incumbents for “frantically requesting another blank check for more spending by supporting a higher borrowing limit without any spending cuts.”

The press-release barrage underscores how easy the debt-ceiling issue is to demagogue. Any incumbent in a marginal district knows that a vote to raise the debt ceiling will morph into a 2012 attack ad about his addiction to out-of-control borrowing. A recent Gallup Poll found that only 19 percent of adult Americans support raising the debt ceiling, while 47 percent are opposed and another 34 percent have no opinion. Ominously, by a three-to-one margin, independents oppose increasing the government’s borrowing ability. 

Poll numbers like these help explain why the president has avoided talking publicly about the debt ceiling. In fact, a search of the White House database failed to find a single example of Obama uttering those two fateful words since leaving the Senate (where he voted against raising the debt ceiling in 2006). Instead, the issue has been left to the Treasury Department, which put out a well-argued fact sheet warning that default “would precipitate a self-inflicted financial crisis more severe than the one from which we are now recovering.” White House press secretary Jay Carney veers from calling a failure to act “calamitous” to blandly expressing optimism about an eventual deficit deal. 

The Obama White House, in short, is treating this year’s debt-ceiling fight as if it were just another installment of the familiar legislative game of finding a majority of responsible adults. Their logic is that at the last minute enough Republicans will yield to pressure from the Chamber of Commerce and other business groups to find a formula to prevent the government from defaulting. After the populist posturing and deficit dramatics, the assumption is that the establishment will prevail because that is how it always works in American politics.

But two months before the Treasury Department exhausts the last of its borrowing authority (the current drop-dead date is August 2), there are ominous signs that this elite consensus just might fall apart.

Never before in memory has there been a congressional majority as bumptious as the House Republicans, who seem to believe that eviscerating Medicare is a reasonable price for granting enough grudging votes to raise the debt ceiling. Even more alarming is the ease with which mainstream Republicans have embraced the economically explosive fiction that a little default is a no-fault option. Appearing Sunday on ABC’s This Week, Tim Pawlenty argued that Obama “was setting up a false choice between default and raising the debt ceiling … [because] at least for a while, you can take away that false choice by ordering the Treasury to pay the obligations to outside creditors first.” Imagine the notion of the government paying the Chinese first and Social Security recipients when the Republicans finally got around to raising the debt ceiling.

Think it can’t happen here? Remember that in 2008, with the financial markets in free fall, the House initially voted down TARP, with 95 Democrats and 133 Republicans opting for the apocalypse over risking their reelection chances. During the 2010 campaigns from South Carolina to Nebraska, both Republicans and Democrats confided to me that voting for TARP the second time around was the most difficult political vote of their careers. Having done the responsible thing back in 2008 (and then discovering that the voters will never fully forgive them), these legislators are likely to let someone else mount the scaffold for the debt-ceiling vote. 

Looking at the arithmetic of Tuesday night’s debt-ceiling vote (97 Democrats voting aye, 7 voting “present” to protest GOP gamesmanship, and party leaders like Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer voting “no,” although they will undoubtedly support Obama on a final vote), it is hard to see how the legislation can ultimately pass the House without 80-90 GOP votes. Unless you believe that there will be a grand deficit bargain by the end of July (and elves are dancing in the glen), finding 80-90 Republicans willing to take on both the fury of the Tea Party movement and the doubts of independent voters is a daunting task.

That is why Obama’s silence on the debt-ceiling version of Russian Roulette is so troubling. Of course, the president is not going to convince the Glenn Beck brigades and Rush Limbaugh legions to support extending the government’s borrowing authority. But the bully pulpit does count for something with the independents who misguidedly believe that raising the debt ceiling is somehow more dangerous than the government refusing to pay its obligations. Two months is long enough for Obama to explain to the voters in the middle what the stakes are in what could prove to be the biggest political showdown between now and the 2012 election.

Jay Carney came to Tuesday’s briefing armed with a 1983 Ronald Reagan letter to Congress warning that “the full consequences of a default … are impossible to predict and awesome to contemplate.” Reagan, of course, was right. But even as Carney quoted Reagan, it was telling that the White House press secretary was not armed with a more contemporary line from a president named Barack Obama.

Walter Shapiro is a special correspondent for The New Republic. Follow him on Twitter here.