A casual observer of the debt ceiling debate may be baffled by the Republican Party's actions. Are they really going to send the American economy off a cliff by drawing an ideological line in the sand and demanding that Democrats be pushed to unreasonable extremes? Are they really that crazy?
We masses are not privy to the political negotiations going on daily behind closed doors, and much less to the internal thought processes of those calling the shots. However, there are a few compelling theories that may explain their behavior:
Business Management 101: Create a Crisis to Move Your Agenda Forward
One business management theory is that the only way to get anything done is to create a crisis. A crisis will demand rapid action in a way that calm, long-term planning cannot. People work harder to meet deadlines, because they have to. Alternatively referred to as the "lighting-a-fire-under-your-ass," strategy, creating a crisis is particularly effective in a behemoth democracy in which there are hundreds of alternate agendas. Fear focuses the mind.
The Republicans created a fake crisis in the debt-ceiling vote. (These guys voted to raise the debt ceiling 11 times under George W. Bush -- suddenly they're morally opposed to it?) Tying the debt ceiling to budget cuts was the brainchild of the Tea Party movement, who rode into Washington by promising hefty cuts. Despite creating the veneer of a crisis, the Republicans know they can "save the day" at the last minute -- after letting as much blood as possible from the Democrats.
Representing the Constituency: Actually, the People Want This
An overlooked fact in the beltway media is that polls show that the majority of Republicans AND Independents actually want spending cuts to be linked to the raising of the debt ceiling. Nearly every poll this spring and summer show this and, in some polls, the difference is substantial, at 2-1 in favor. Republicans are actually doing what is in their political best interest -- believing that they will be rewarded in 2012 for standing firm on this issue.
Not surprisingly, it's the Republicans we can thank, at least in part, for those poll numbers. Their messaging has convinced middle America that it's better to default on our debt than continue our profligate spending -- when, in fact, every reasonable economist in America and nearly all international leaders have been warning us on how catastrophic consequences of this action.
Held Hostage at Your Own Tea Party!
The missing piece in both these theories, however, is that "reasonable Republicans" are being held hostage themselves -- by the fanatical sect of their own party. As columnist David Brooks explained this weekend, the Tea Party movement did not come to Washington to govern and compromise in the traditional spirit of American politics; they came to demand and threaten.
If the Republican Party were a normal party, it would take advantage of this amazing moment. It is being offered the deal of the century: trillions of dollars in spending cuts ... But we can have no confidence that the Republicans will seize this opportunity... because the Republican Party may no longer be a normal party. Over the past few years, it has been infected by a faction that is more of a psychological protest than a practical, governing alternative.
The "fanatics" in the Tea Party have stated in no uncertain terms that they are not willing to support tax hikes of any kind, period. Grover Norquist of the Americans for Tax Reform, for one, has gotten leaders, including Rep. John Boehner, to sign that pledge.
No matter how much the Democrats on the other side of the table are willing to give, the Tea Party's answer to any level of tax hike is no. It is the adult equivalent of putting their hands over their ears and chanting "nah nah nah, I can't hear you." The Tea Party is the author of the linking of the debt ceiling to spending cuts. You can be sure they are taking this play to the final act.
Despite the Republicans intense and sometimes bizarre methods, there may be a silver lining in all this for President Obama. While the debt ceiling vote is largely a manufactured crisis, the direness of our fiscal debt problem is real. The day of reckoning may not be August 2, 2011, but it will be soon. Perhaps the Republicans have allowed Obama to secretly clap his hands with glee -- he doesn't have to be the bad guy who slashed the sacred cows of Medicare and Social Security. By playing ball with the Republicans, the President gets to look like the reasonable negotiator, while achieving needed spending cuts. Indeed, this may be prime time to exact these kinds of concessions from his own party -- and blame the Republicans for the fallout.
The real question is whether Boehner can control his own fringe. No matter how reasonable both sides may come to be -- there is the very real possibility that the Tea Party may be the spoilers.