Republicans in the Debt Debate: Out of Their Right Minds

Michael Tomasky asks if GOP rhetoric has made compromise impossible.

J. Scott Applewhite / AP Photo

Events now move at a fast and furious pace. At exactly 12:38 on Thursday afternoon, The New York Times posted a breaking news banner saying that President Obama and John Boehner were close to a major deal. Within minutes, both parties tweeted no, not true. But whether there is or isn’t a deal announced today or tomorrow, and whatever its details, the thing to keep in mind is this. The “push” of the details of any deal (and the threat of economic meltdown) will eventually come head to head with the “shove” of the hard emotional truth that the vast majority of Washington Republicans and conservatives will not do anything, participate in any act, that can be construed as a win for Barack Obama.

That, in the end, is what the debt-ceiling endgame is going to be about: Can enough Republicans break out of this mindset? Most insiders seem to assume yes. But I say emotion is stronger than reason, and everything about the way the right has behaved in the Obama era suggests to me that it (not just the right-wing politicians, but its media outlets and entire ideological infrastructure) has been girding itself for precisely this fight. This in turn means that the votes needed to avert disaster might very well not be there.

The fight is partly about legitimate ideological differences, and it’s partly about the Republicans seeing a rare opportunity to use the occasion to win some big cuts to the domestic budget and maybe entitlements if they’re lucky. But let’s be real. It’s also about not giving Obama a victory. In fact, on a deep emotional and psychological level, it’s chiefly about that. Now that’s not what Republicans go on cable television and say. But it’s quite obviously been the whole strategy since the stimulus bill: Obama gets nothing from us. And every so often, someone slips, and the truth is revealed. The other day, after the Gang of Six released its new plan, a Senate leadership aide tweeted the following to Politico’s morning Playbook, which gets read by every Washington insider: “Background guidance: The President killed any chance of its success by 1) Embracing it. 2) Hailing the fact that it increases taxes. 3) Saying it mirrors his own plan.”

Note what’s No. 1: not a policy reservation (taxes); not a political consideration (that it’s like Obama’s own Democratic plan); but rather the mere fact of Obama embracing the plan. They’re just out of their minds about the man. Now it’s true that enough Senate Republicans signed a letter supporting the Gang of Six in theory that it could survive a cloture vote, if in fact those Republicans stood by that position on an actual vote, which is a big if. But the vast majority of Senate Republicans are staying away from the Gang of Six, and Obama’s mere endorsement ensures that things will remain that way. And that, remember, is in the supposedly reasonable body. The House, as everyone knows, is a much steeper climb.

We’ve watched for three years now as the right has unloaded every manner of vitriol on Obama it can think of. Muslim, socialist, communist, fascist, terrorist, what have you. Whenever someone crossed an obvious line—say, with a racial joke—defenders popped up: Come on, it’s just rhetoric. Not that big a deal.

But a group’s rhetoric has a way of creating its own reality, which in turn forces a certain kind of behavior. If you say someone is a terrible American, even if you’re just joking at first, eventually you believe it. And if you believe it, how can you negotiate with the person? You can’t. You can only defeat him.

This is the cry in Tea Party circles, and it is only going to crescendo as the debt deadline gets closer. Because as a deal takes shape, and as an actual vote approaches, the next thing that will happen is the right-wing media network is going to kick into gear, and Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and all the others are going to scream that a raising of the debt ceiling, even a temporary one, is a win for Obama, and any Republican who goes along with it is committing treason. Remember back in 2007, when it looked like a bipartisan immigration bill was actually going to pass, but then right-wing talk radio kicked into gear and terrified Republicans and killed immigration reform for years? It was pretty ruthless, but I suspect this is going to make that look like amateur hour.

Obama is everything the GOP base and the right-wing media hate. Your typical conservative legislator is all-too-aware of this and feels (not knows—feels) many of the same impulses himself. Economic calamity is both hypothetical and a thing that exists in the realm of reason. People—and surely Obama himself, Mr. Reasonable—are counting on reason to prevail. To which I ask one question: Why would it now?