Impervious To Evidence

So in trying to guess what congressional Republicans will actually do at the conclusion of this game of chicken with the president over the debt limit, I would cite the precedent that no debt default has actually occurred before despite the occasional games of Russian Roulette. But on the other hand, there is the testimony of Josh Barro, who knows these birds a lot better than I do:

Politico reported today that top Republican staff members believe “more than half” their conference is prepared to push the government into default on some payments rather than cave on their demands for further spending cuts.

This isn’t because Republicans are reckless, as such. Many conservatives are sincerely convinced that excessive government spending poses a dire risk to the U.S. economy, and that even if missed payments have severe negative short-term economic consequences, they will be worth it if the long-term outcome is a smaller government.

The conviction that everything is about to come apart in the U.S. if the government maintains its current economic-policy course — through tremendous inflation, a debt crisis, and/or all of the productive members of society Going Galt — animates the huge Republican resistance to anything Obama proposes, even if that’s just the government paying the bills it has already run up. They’re trying their very hardest to save the country from a madman.

This sincere outlook is also insane, as you can see from how the stock and bond markets have behaved in recent years in response to various policy actions. The markets like fiscal expansion, monetary expansion and deals that keep the government operating as usual without drastic policy change. They do not cry out for massive disruption in pursuit of smaller government.

But the conservative worldview is robust because of its imperviousness to evidence. Economic data, like polling data or climate data, cannot get in the way of the narrative. Conservatives are sure that the Obama presidency will lead to an economic calamity, and they will prove it, if necessary.

Okay. Now “more than half” of House Republicans may not be sufficient to force a default if Democrats stay in line. And there’s no question John Boehner and other “responsible” Republicans will point to their own crazy people and claim Democratic concessions (of the sort the president has been ruling out) are necessary to keep the ranks of the crazy people from growing–perhaps even to include the Speaker himself.

WaPo’s Greg Sargent, who’s been closely watching the GOP twist in the wind on the debt default, sees a white flag in a National Review editorial calling for a debt limit increase limited (somehow) to existing obligations. Perhaps. But don’t underestimate the grip of ideology cited by Barro, or the dangers inherent in a situation where an awful lot of House Republicans will want to vote against a debt limit increase even if they don’t actually desire its defeat.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.