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Wingnut Watch: Debt-Ceiling Deniers, Hostage-Takers and the 2012 Field

It’s happened so quickly that its significance may have been obscured, but one of the biggest recent developments in Wingnut World has been the rapid devolution of conservative opinion on the pending debt limit crisis–from demands for hard-line negotiations to outright rejection of negotiations at all, often supplemented by claims that the government doesn’t need new debt authority anyway.

This last phenomenon, which Jonathan Chait and others have been calling “debt-ceiling denialism,” is spreading like kudzu since it was first notably articulated by Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) in a January column in the Wall Street Journal. There are different forms of the argument, but the common threads are the claim that the federal government can prioritize the use of revenues in a way that avoids debt default, and the complaint that the whole issue has been manufactured by Democrats to avoid big spending cuts. Toomey attracted 100 House members and 22 Senators to his “Full Faith and Credit Act” legislation that would supposedly avoid a default by forcing debt payments to the top of the spending priority list.

Short of explicit denial that a real breaching of the debt limit would be a bad thing, other conservatives (including presidential candidates Tim Pawlenty, Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain) take the parallel position of opposing any increase in the debt limit on grounds that spending (without, of course, any tax increases) should be cut enough to make the increase unnecessary.

The usual reaction in Washington to this sort of talk is to dismiss it as tactical positioning for the “deal” that will ultimately be cut—as “hostage-taking” aimed at maximizing the “ransom.” Perhaps that’s exactly what it was initially. But at some point, arguments that the hostage’s life is worth nothing, or worse yet, that the ransom limit increases are perpetually unpopular among the overwhelming percentage of Americans who have no real idea of the merits of either side of the can be earned precisely by killing the hostage, undermine the very idea of a deal, particularly when refusing to negotiate with Democrats is a posture that conservatives value as an end in itself anyway. Indeed, the trend in conservative rhetoric on this subject is to accuse Democrats of hostage-taking by their adamant refusal to accept vast spending reductions. It’s a dangerous gambit, made even more tempting to Republicans by the fact that debt dispute.

The key question is the extent to which the GOP’s business elites forcefully push back and demand a more reasonable attitude before things get out of hand. That’s particularly urgent since debt-limit deniers and hard-liners alike are getting into the habit of arguing that financial markets care more about spending reductions than any hypothetical default on the debt. Moreover, debt-limit ultras are also playing with fire by systematically eliminating any incentive for the Obama administration or congressional Democrats to make concessions to a credible negotiating partner. Why offer a ransom when the hostage-takers no longer seem to care what you offer? Better to just send in the SWAT team and take your chances.

Meanwhile, the last week offered more news in the shaping of the 2012 Republican presidential nomination field: Mitch Daniels disappointed his Beltway cheerleading squad by deciding against a run; Newt Gingrich imploded his long-shot campaign with a series of disastrous remarks and revelations; and Tim Pawlenty and Herman Cain formally announced candidacies.

Assessments of the impact of Daniels’ non-candidacy vary according to perspective. Some think it will lead Establishment Republicans to make a last-ditch effort to find another savior such as Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) or even Jeb Bush. And if that fails, to resign themselves to the existing field and get behind Romney, Pawlenty, or Huntsman (though the last option remains implausible because his path to the nomination remains extremely difficult). Others combine the Daniels and Huckabee withdrawals and suggest the weak field will produce a big opening for a southern Tea Party conservative with deep pockets like Rick Perry. Both Establishment types and fans of a late entry are beginning to burrow away to undermine the credibility of the Iowa Caucuses as the essential starting-point for the real campaign (for the latter camp, it’s in part because competing in Iowa requires competing in the state party Straw Poll that is held this August).

Though the Gingrich implosion has interested the conservative commentariat less than Daniels’ decision–for the good reason that very few observers considered the Newster viable in the first place–its long-term significance should not be underestimated: it proved once again that ideological purity is the preeminent demand of conservatives for GOP presidential candidates. If nothing else, the incident will make it very difficult for other candidates to distance themselves from Paul Ryan’s politically perilous Medicare proposals. But it should also serve as a dashboard idiot light to Mitt Romney warning him that his hopes of being forgiven for his health care heresy may not be terribly realistic.


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