When economic motives come into question

We talked this morning about the top four congressional Republican leaders writing a joint letter to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. The plea was pretty straightforward — the GOP leaders have decided to actively lobby Bernanke, pressing him to let the economy stay on its downward trajectory and to not even try to help.

David Frum, a center-right observer, had a noteworthy response to the Republican correspondence.

I’m not shocked by much anymore, but I am shocked by this: the leaders of one of the great parties in Congress calling on the Federal Reserve to tighten money in the throes of the most prolonged downturn since the Great Depression. […]

[T]he GOP leadership is urging that the Federal Reserve make the catastrophe worse? To what end?

I know what the detractors will say: to the end of defeating President Obama and replacing him with a Republican president. And if you’ve convinced yourself that Obama is the Second Coming of Malcolm X, Trotsky, and the all-conquering Caliph Omar all in one, then perhaps capsizing the US economy and plunging your fellow-citizens deeper into misery will seem a price worth paying to rid the country of him.

But on any realistic assessment of the problems faced by Americans — and not just would-be Republican office-holders — it’s the recession, not the presidency, that is National Problem #1 and demands the most urgent action…. This is the hour for united action against the economic crisis, not partisan maneuvering.

Frum doesn’t come right out and say it explicitly, but reading this, it appears Frum believes Republican leaders are — or at least may be — trying to hurt the economy on purpose, as part of a political strategy to undermine President Obama during a crisis.

In other words, Frum seems to be suggesting that the top GOP officials in Congress, including the entire party leadership, may be involved in some kind of sabotage campaign. That’s no small charge.

But it is an increasingly common one. Michael Cohen, a senior fellow at American Security Project, apparently following up on a discussion I launched last November, said this afternoon, “We’re far past the point where there is reason to doubt that the GOP is purposely trying to harm” the economy.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), vice chairman of the Senate Democratic Conference, believes “some” Republicans “want the economy to actually fail.” Paul Krugman recently said in his column, “[I]t’s hard to avoid the suspicion that G.O.P. leaders actually want the economy to perform badly.” Eugene Robinson, a Pulitzer Prize winner, was recently asked whether it’s possible Republicans would sabotage the economy. “Well, let me be honest,” he said. “It has occurred to me that this is a possibility.” E.J. Dionne Jr. and Dan Gross have raised the same concerns.

A few months ago, Kevin Drum wondered whether this will ever be “a serious talking point,” adding, “No serious person in a position of real influence really wants to accuse an entire party of cynically trying to tank the economy, after all.”

Given recent events — the debt-ceiling scandal, the GOP-driven downgrade, the Republican rejection of any efforts to boost the economy, the letter to Bernanke, the repeated threats of government shutdowns — it appears all kinds of serious people are at least entertaining the possibility.

Update: It looks like Andrew Sullivan is thinking along the same lines, too: “Every time you think the ultras in the current GOP won’t go there, they do. They’ll sabotage economic growth for short term political advantage.”