Political Correction

Who Could Have Guessed Speaker Boehner Would Play Chicken With The Debt Ceiling?

April 26, 2011 11:44 am ET - by Jamison Foser

Speaker John Boehner

David Frum is supposed to be one of the "serious" Republicans — he doesn't traffic in birtherism, and his willingness to denounce some of his party's more extreme positions has won him few fans among the frothier elements of the conservative movement. Just yesterday, Frum posted a stinging indictment of the GOP's embrace of Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-WI) budget:

Ryan's plans are bold. And they made bold promises. According to a Heritage Foundation study commissioned by Ryan, the plan would reduce unemployment to 6.4% next year, 4.0% in 2015 and 2.8% by 2021. [...]

Alas, the Heritage projections were derided by other economists and eventually quietly withdrawn by Heritage itself.

Well, we all sometimes get our math wrong. But here's the strange thing: the invalidation of Heritage's job predictions has had no impact whatsoever on Republican advocacy of the Ryan plan.

Suppose I presented you with a plan to land an astronaut on Mars. You check my numbers and discover a mistake: my trajectory will instead send the astronaut hurtling into outer space. If I answer, "Well let's use that trajectory anyway," wouldn't you conclude that I was less than totally committed to the Mars mission? That perhaps I had some other goal in mind instead? 

But Frum, like many "serious" conservatives, doesn't truly understand the slash-and-burn ideologues who long ago seized control of the movement and the Republican Party. And, as a result, he gives the benefit of the doubt to people who do not deserve it. 

Just a few weeks before Ryan unveiled his budget, for example, Frum declared, "Paul Ryan's advance previews of his budget ideas make a lot of sense." Observers less eager to give Ryan the benefit of the doubt, like Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, had long sense determined that the Wisconsin Republican is fundamentally unserious — a "Flimflam Man," in Krugman's phrasing. Then when Ryan quite predictably produced a budget drenched in snake oil, Frum — having just weeks earlier said Ryan's budget ideas "make a lot of sense" — belatedly realized its flaws.

Consider House Speaker John Boehner's (R-OH) new threats that the House might not raise the debt limit:

Speaker John Boehner won't guarantee a vote on raising the debt limit, the latest threat in an increasingly high stakes game of chicken with the White House over whether Congress will inch closer to letting the nation default on its credit.

Boehner, in an interview with POLITICO here Monday, also demanded that President Barack Obama give in to Republican demands to slash spending and dramatically change "the way we spend the peoples' money."

"If the president doesn't get serious about the need to address our fiscal nightmare, yeah, there's a chance it [the debt limit vote] could not happen," Boehner told POLITICO after he toured a manufacturing company in this western Ohio town. "But that's not my goal." [...]

Boehner laid out several goals for any potential deal on the debt limit: He is calling for controls on discretionary spending and altering the nation's entitlements like Medicare and Medicaid to be attached to the legislation to hike the debt ceiling.

He was noncommittal about holding a vote on that bill before July 4 - very close to the deadline in which Treasury says the U.S. will have hit its borrowing limit.

It's hard to imagine that any of this surprises anyone who has been paying the slightest bit of attention. And yet, just a few months ago, when White House economic adviser Austan Goolsbee warned that the debt ceiling is "not a game. I don't see why anybody's talking about playing chicken with the...with the debt ceiling," David Frum lashed out, insisting that Boehner would not play chicken: 

Yes it's true that you can find individual Republican members of the House who have said hot-headed things about the debt ceiling. It's equally true that Speaker John Boehner has clearly broadcast that the House will not do anything irresponsible. Goolsbee is debating with phantoms.

Here's Boehner on Nov. 18: "Whether we like it or not, the federal government has obligations and we have obligations on our part." Again — you can repeat ad infinitum.

If Goolsbee's words were scripted — and he did reiterate the point in a way that does not typically happen with impromptu mistakes — you can imagine the strategy behind them: depict Republicans as reckless fiscal madmen. But in order to score a cheap and inaccurate political point, it was Goolsbee who was enflaming the very market fears you might imagine he wanted to allay.

To recap: Goolsbee warned against "playing chicken" with the debt ceiling. Frum denounced him for "debating with phantoms," insisting Boehner would never do such a thing. Now Boehner is, as Politico put it, playing "an increasingly high stakes game of chicken." Who could have seen that coming?

Frum and his ilk deserve praise when they accurately call out the the GOP's excesses. But their insistence on giving the benefit of the doubt to people who do not deserve it only makes those excesses more likely. The conservative movement, including prominent elected Republicans, promoted the looney claim that President Clinton murdered his close friend — and now "serious" Republicans act surprised that their party dabbles in birtherism. The GOP lied its way into war against a nation that didn't attack us — and now "serious" Republicans act surprised that their party lies about health care. If the David Frums of the world really want to change that, they first have to truly understand it.

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