The arguments for and against panicking

One of the few areas of consensus in the debt-reduction talks deals with consequences: everyone agrees that failure to raise the debt ceiling would be very bad. With this in mind, it’s only natural to start feeling some anxiety as the negotiations in Washington falter. We all assume cooler heads will prevail, but what if they don’t? What if, in this hostage scenario, Republicans actually pull the trigger?

Slate‘s John Dickerson argued that there’s “no need to worry.” There’s plenty of drama, but “we know the ending” of this story.

In a sign of progress, Republican appointees to Vice President Joe Biden’s debt limit talks announced late Wednesday that they were pulling out of negotiations. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl denounced the president and Democrats for wanting to raise taxes. Added House Speaker John Boehner: “The president is going to have to engage.”

It sure doesn’t sound like progress. But if you view these negotiations using the Saturday serial movie construct (and all right-thinking Americans should), this is simply the drama necessary to advance the story. When the heroine is tied to the tracks and the train is approaching, the audience’s blood starts to race. But in the back of our minds, we know that she’s not in real danger. Whether the brakeman steps in or Shazam swoops down to snatch her, we know the situation will resolve itself.

As Dickerson sees it, this process is following a predictable path. The Biden-led talks would invariably reach an impasse, at which point the participants would kick this upstairs.

But what about all the threats, chest-thumping, and lines in the sand? Dickerson argues that’s part of the process, too.

Before the final stage of backroom negotiations, there are always the denunciations, charges of unseriousness, and accusations of ideological rigidity. Why do we always come to this stage? It’s a negotiating tactic, an educational exercise, and stage management. Anyone putting together a deal knows the value of seeming inflexible. Maybe you’ll win concessions from the other side. Republican leaders must make a show of how difficult they are to impress their members and constituents. If a deal happened with Biden in a room and there wasn’t any public outcry, conservatives would have every right to be suspicious that Republicans got rolled.

This may be reassuring to those predisposed to worry about such things (i.e., me), and if I had to put money on this, I’d say the relevant players will work something out before disaster strikes.

But there’s still a nagging fear. My concern, which was reinforced yesterday, is that Republicans have effectively backed themselves into a corner, and forgot to leave a way out. They decided to launch the hostage strategy, vowing to crash the economy on purpose unless Democrats agreed to a deal, but these same Republicans are slowly discovering that they don’t actually like what the eventual deal is going to look like. After all, there is a Democratic Senate and a Democratic White House. The Dems aren’t great at the negotiating game, but they’re not going to give away the store, either.

House Republicans, who tend to believe their own nonsense, can’t vote against a compromise without crushing the American economy, and they can’t vote for it without leaving their supporters crushed and their principles in the trash. They already agreed to put a right-wing ideological agenda ahead of the nation’s interests, and reversing course will, to put it mildly, be kind of tricky.

The reason I’m not panicky is that, when push comes to shove, I suspect some very wealthy, very powerful conservatives will call congressional Republicans and say, “Time to stop screwing around.” Wall Street, the Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, and dozens of other power business lobbying groups want the debt ceiling raised, and these are the kind of folks who tend to give Republicans marching orders that get followed.

But I find it tough to dismiss the possibility of a GOP-created crisis altogether.