Were they bluffing?

For the better part of 2011, most of the Republicans in Congress proclaimed to anyone who’d listen they were holding the debt ceiling hostage. Meet Republicans’ demands or they’d stand by as the economy crashed.

Pat Garofalo notes that the GOP’s demands weren’t met, at least not all of them, but many of those making the threats still didn’t pull the trigger when the final bill reached the floor.

Of the GOP freshman class, 59 members voted in favor of the deal, with 28 opposed.

Tea Partiers had said that everything from a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution to corporate tax cuts were required in return for their vote to raise the debt ceiling — if they were willing to vote to raise it at all — but still, many of them came over without such pieces being in the bill (which only requires that a vote be held on a balanced budget amendment).

Quite right. There were all kinds of things House Republicans added to the ransom note in recent months that weren’t even considered in the final bill, Boehner’s 98% boast notwithstanding.

Given this, it’s tempting to conclude, “They were bluffing all along! They said they were willing to crash the economy unless all of their demands were met, but when push came to shove, they weren’t really willing to go through with it.”

The nuances matter here. We now know most Republicans, even in the House, were willing to settle for something short of everything. That’s not a big surprise. But what we don’t know is what might have happened if President Obama had said in February, “Don’t even think about it. I will tolerate nothing more than a clean bill. No exceptions.”

In other words, were some of these far-right lawmakers bluffing about preferring default to compromise? Apparently so. But would these same far-right lawmakers have blocked a debt-ceiling increase without a deal they considered good enough by their standards? It’s speculative, of course, but I suspect they would have. These folks were willing to settle for less than 100%, but I find it relatively easy to believe they would have gladly pushed the nation over the cliff if they were offered literally nothing.

They were bluffing, but we still can’t say to what extent they were bluffing.

The trick, then, is figuring how far from 100% Republicans were willing to go. Nate Silver argued yesterday that the final tally in the House suggests President Obama “left something on the table. That is, Mr. Obama could have shifted the deal tangibly toward the left and still gotten a bill through without too much of a problem. For instance, even if all members of the Tea Party Caucus had voted against the bill, it would still have passed 237-to-193, and that’s with 95 Democrats voting against it.”

Getting specific about a bill that was “tangibly” to the left of the final deal is tricky, but Silver makes the case Obama could have gotten an extension of the payroll tax break and if I had to guess, I’d say he’s right.