The New York Times‘ Ross Douthat argued this week that the congressional Republicans’ debt-ceiling hostage strategy only seems crazy.

The Republican Party’s strategy in the debt-ceiling negotiations has baffled centrists and vindicated liberals. For months, the party’s leaders have repeatedly turned down deals that would cut spending significantly because their members won’t compromise on taxes. To moderates, this intransigence is inexplicable: Are they crazy? To the left, it’s all-too-predictable: See, we told you they were crazy!

But there is a method to the Republicans’ madness….

There’s a fair amount to Douthat’s pitch, but to summarize, GOP officials are really just shrewd negotiators, pushing for the best possible deal. There’s certainly nothing crazy about that, right?

Wrong. Jon Chait explains today:

[T]he evidence that’s leaked out about internal republican deliberations suggests the Republicans are not shrewdly trying to maximize their leverage. They’re just barking mad. […]

The more we find out about the House Republican caucus, the more obvious it becomes that they’re not just trying to maximize their leverage by pretending to be crazy. They’re crazy.

For the country’s sake, I’d love to believe Douthat. Really, I would. I’d be absolutely delighted to learn that Republicans are just aggressive poker players, but when push comes to shove, they’ll be able to tell the difference between fantasy and reason, and they’ll put the nation’s interests first.

But here we are, 20 days until a brutal deadline, and Republicans give every appearance of being downright certifiable. We know this from their own rhetoric, and we know this from every published description of Republican deliberations in this process. According to the party’s own Speaker, at least a quarter of the House GOP caucus actually wants to see the United States default. The actual number is probably much higher.

As one leading economist put it yesterday, observers around the world are saying of Republicans, “There’s no way they could possibly be this stupid.”

It’s time people start coming to grips with the fact they very well might be precisely this stupid.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.