Slowly, painfully, political reality has begun to dawn on Washington Republicans and their supporters: If they force a major battle over the debt ceiling — a battle that they have acted oh-so-eager to fight — they are guaranteed to lose, and to lose badly.
Such a battle would be fought against superior forces, and on ill-chosen ground. The president’s approval rating are consistently above 50 percent; Congress has an approval rating of 14 percent. While Republicans still hold the House majority, they lost seats in the 2012 election and acknowledge that they held onto the majority only because of gerrymandering. Majorities of Republican voters reject key proponents of the GOP agenda, including cuts to Social Security and Medicare. In fact, 63 percent of GOP voters say the congressional GOP is out of touch. (That’s a Rasmussen number, by the way.)
And according to a new AP poll, 80 percent of Americans say that refusing to raise the debt ceiling, as House and Senate Republicans have promised to do, would touch off a major economic crisis.
Under those circumstances, threatening to force that major economic crisis unless the president implements politically unpopular policies would be the act of a fool. And fools there no doubt be.
However, a handful of Republican senators have now publicly acknowledged that the party would lose and lose badly by threatening to shut down the government. U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, chair of the House Budget Committee, warned his fellow GOP congressmen at a retreat yesterday that their strategy has to match their capability.
“Ryan said Republicans need to come to grips with the fact that they are the only Republicans in power in Washington. In the closed legislative strategy session, he said the GOP should avoid over-promising and under-delivering, according to five sources present. Instead, House Republicans should work to control expectations about what they can extract from Obama, and then people will be pleased by the result.”
The usually bellicose Charles Krauthammer is also a bit of a bellwether. He has been egging the Republicans on for weeks now, pushing them to do battle. (”If we all cliff-dive, Obama gets to preside over yet another recession. It will wreck his second term… You think he wants a second term with a double-dip recession, 9 percent unemployment and a totally gridlocked Congress? Republicans have to stop playing as if they have no cards.”)
Now, even Krauthammer wants to back down from a fight that he suddenly sees can only end badly. “The party establishment,” he writes, “is coming around to the view that if you try to govern from one house — e.g., force spending cuts with cliffhanging brinkmanship — you lose. You not only don’t get the cuts. You get the blame for rattled markets and economic uncertainty. You get humiliated by having to cave in the end. And you get opinion polls ranking you below head lice and colonoscopies in popularity.”
What’s going on here? Why this sudden outburst of strategic sanity? I think the great Samuel Johnson put it best:
“Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”
– Jay Bookman