There are two warring insider narratives in Washington right now over what Republicans really want in the negotiations over the debt limit. One is that the content of any deal is less important than how it is framed politically. The other is that the GOP is just driving a really hard bargain in order to gain maximal policy concessions. But there’s a third and largely overlooked phenomenon that’s gumming up the works of any possible deal: the growing number of conservatives who genuinely believe that they (and the country) would be better off without one.
Under the first narrative proffered by insiders, any debt ceiling deal that could be interpreted as making Barack Obama’s re-election more likely is intolerable. This is supposedly the rationale for Mitch McConnell’s proposal last week, which backed off earlier Republican demands for spending cuts and instead created a series of pre-election hurdles intended to make the president look bad. The second narrative, on the other hand, is that the GOP’s hard-line opposition to a compromise on the debt limit is largely tactical. The deliberate and cynical deployment of hard-core Tea Party activists is simply intended to increase the leverage of GOP negotiators by creating the appearance their hands are tied. This tactic will work, many predict, because of either the (take your pick) sense of responsibility or gutlessness of the White House and congressional Democratic leaders.
Both these theories, however, imply that the GOP will accept the best deal they can get at the last possible moment. That means there’s no reason to take seriously the large and growing number of conservatives inside and beyond Washington who are shouting ‘No Deal At All.’ It’s the latest version of the ancient Beltway Establishment belief that Republicans are a party led by adults, whose noisy, bad children will, in the end, bite their lips and shuffle off to their rooms at bedtime as commanded. That may yet turn out to be true, if only because the injunction of Republican elders to conservative activists to behave on the debt limit will be backed up by the paymasters of Wall Street. But I wouldn’t be so sure.
To begin, a large number of conservative activists and Republican pols have been lashing themselves to the mast of intransigence on the debt ceiling issue like Odysseus sailing into the land of the Sirens. They include those who have convinced themselves that a failure to raise the debt limit will not actually produce a default on debts, as well as those who read the polls and decided there was no advantage to be gained in defying both the Tea Party Movement and long-standing public opposition to any and all debt limit increases. But they also include the nine presidential candidates (ten if Rick Perry runs), 12 Senators, 39 House members, five governors, and 183 conservative organizations that have signed the Cut, Cap, and Balance Pledge opposing any debt limit increase if it is not accompanied by all three prongs of that politically impossible proposal. The chief engineer of this pledge, Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, is an extraordinarily powerful figure these days, both in Washington and on the 2012 campaign trail, thanks to his home state’s pivotal position in the GOP presidential primary.
Moreover, the power of the “just say no” faction extends beyond the ranks of actual Pledge signatories to all those Republican officeholders who do not wish to expose themselves to Tea Party wrath or primary challenges. This faction’s ultimate position was well articulated yesterday by RedState proprietor and ideological commissar Erick Erickson:
In the past 48 hours I have had call after call after call from members of the United States Congress. They’ve read what I’ve written. They agree. But they feel the hour is short and the end is nigh.
So some are calling looking for alternatives. Some are calling looking for energy. Many are calling looking for absolution.
And so I address them and put it here so you can see my advice.
I can give no absolution for what you may be about to do. I can offer no alternatives. …
You went to Washington to change Washington. You went to Washington because you said it was broken and you worried about the future for your children and grandchildren.
And now, at the moment of crisis you are worried and second guessing yourself and looking for alternatives, ways out, and most of all a clear conscience. Cut, Cap, and Balance is the only plan that can save our credit rating and our financial integrity. I can offer you nothing else, nor should you waver from fighting for it alone.
The first thing of note is Erickson’s framing of his edict as a sort of papal bull. In the heat of negotiations, the debt limit issue has been elevated among conservative activists to the level of religious frenzy and absolutism. The second notable feature is Erickson’s implicit dismissal of the economic consequences of a debt default as more acceptable than any deal short of the no-deal Cut, Cap, and Balance ultimatum.
Indeed, lurking just beneath the surface of much of the conservative hard line on the debt limit is an ironclad conviction that all sorts of economic havoc, including a much deeper recession, might be preferable to the continuation of twentieth-century “welfare state” policies. And even conservative elites are buying into that proposition. Longtime deficit hawk Robert Samuelson of the Washington Post has articulated the point of view that we are at an epochal turning point in which sacrificing such quaint values as equality and full employment may be sadly essential. “The old order, constructed by most democracies after World War II, rested on three pillars. One was the welfare state,” he writes in his column. But in the current era, he notes, “Ideas and institutions that, on the whole, served well since World War II are under a cloud.”
The idea that today’s conservatives will ultimately abandon their revolutionary goals at the drop of a hat—or a signal from Wall Street or their congressional leadership—mistakes their sense of world-historical importance for mere self-importance. They may well feel a moral obligation, in other words, to screw up America’s economy for the foreseeable future. It could, they believe, be worse: Americans could continue to harbor the terrible illusion that FDR, not Herbert Hoover, was right.
Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic.