It is fascinating, in a stomach-churning kind of way, to watch the Republican Party’s largely public effort to figure out what they think they can get in non-existing negotiations with the president over the debt limit and government shutdown. As everybody’s noting right now, major changes in Obamacare seem to have become an afterthought, except for some “defund Obamacare” ultras like Erick Erickson who are pitching daily fits because their success in forcing congressional Republicans to manufacture a fiscal crisis has lost them control of its management. Paul Ryan is now smoothly moving to the forefront again, offering his usual bag of fiscal pixie dust as the prize Republicans should now pocket.

National Review published an online symposium today wherein five thinkers and gabbers discussed how Republicans should wrap up the fiscal crisis, and the only contributor who offered any clear advice was Ralph Reed, who basically whined that anti-choicers needed a big piece of the action.

Republicans are beginning to resemble kids with pockets full of quarters elbowing each other in the line at one of those arcade “claw” machines. They’re certain they’ll be able to secure one of the really cool prizes, and each just wants to make sure he (it is generally a “he”) gets there first.

Now as I’ve noted before, it’s become fashionable to believe that this disarray over strategic goals in a crisis situation reflects some sort of GOP “nihilism,” a lack of any clear shared objectives. I think it’s the opposite: an abundance of goals that are simply unobtainable in normal politics but that might be secured via negotiations where the opponent (Barack Obama) makes it happen and provides cover. Yes, they want to mess with Obamacare. They want to begin undermining Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid as they are currently constituted. They want to make the federal tax code even more regressive. They want to maximize institutional pressure on the portions of the federal budget they dislike. And as Ralph Reed reminds us, yes, they want to ban abortion and restrict federally-supported access to birth control. And most of all, they want to set a precedent that control of the House (which they view as semi-eternally theirs), the chamber that mythically is charged with management of “the purse,” is power enough to make and secure big demands on the size, structure and direction of government, regardless of what happens in, say, presidential elections.

It’s the precedent, too, that motivates the president’s non-negotiation posture, but Republicans have to a breathtaking extent dismissed it as a ploy he will soon abandon, which in turn makes it easier to ignore the massive peril in which they are placing the economy. And so they jostle around the claw machine, eying prizes that they will almost certainly be denied. It would be kind of funny if the rest of us were not involuntary affected.

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Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.