In order for a hostage standoff to work, everyone has to sincerely believe the hostage takers are prepared to follow through on their threats. In the case of the Republicans' latest debt-ceiling crisis, that means President Obama and congressional Democrats have to be convinced that GOP policymakers will hurt Americans on purpose unless Dem meet Republicans' demands.
But if you listen closely, you might notice that the GOP's resolve is a little shaky. House Speaker John Boehner talked to the Wall Street Journal's Stephen Moore the other day.
I ask Mr. Boehner if he will take the debt-ceiling talks to the brink -- risking a government shutdown and debt downgrade from the credit agencies -- given that it didn't work in 2011 and President Obama has said he won't bargain on the matter.
The debt bill is "one point of leverage," Mr. Boehner says, but he also hedges, noting that it is "not the ultimate leverage." He says that Republicans won't back down from the so-called Boehner rule: that every dollar of raising the debt ceiling will require one dollar of spending cuts over the next 10 years. Rather than forcing a deal, the insistence may result in a series of monthly debt-ceiling increases.
We'd need a little more information to understand exactly what the Speaker is thinking, but the fact that Boehner hedged at all on using the debt ceiling suggests there's at least a small crack in the wall.
Indeed, it's not the only one. The Washington Post quoted Rep. Billy Long (R-Mo.) the other day questioning the utility of the strategy, noting "no one knows the ramifications of not passing a debt ceiling increase." Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was reluctant to rattle his saber, too, in his Sunday show appearances.
Newt Gingrich and the Wall Street Journal's conservative editorial board have also raised concerns about the apparent Republican plan. (I use the word "plan" loosely; to date GOP leaders have indicated they intend to hold the debt ceiling hostage, but they have not yet figured out what to put on the ransom note.)
And what about the prospect of "a series of monthly debt-ceiling increases"?
As a policy matter, it's hardly a responsible approach to national finances. The United States, easily the wealthiest country on the planet, will decide every month whether it will continue to pay its bills, while we work through manufactured political crises instigated by radicalized lawmakers? Instead of annual hostage-taking strategies undermining global faith America's finances, the Speaker of the House wants to see this on a monthly basis?
And as a political matter, as Greg Sargent explained yesterday, Boehner's willingness to even bring this up as a possible approach sheds light on a larger truth: "[T]his should be read, if anything, as a sign of weakness."
It's essentially a concession that the debt limit has to be raised; Boehner is merely threatening to drag his feet as he allows the inevitable to happen. But it's just nonsense. The business community is not going to go for such a course of action, to put it mildly. And it risks dragging the country through monthly threats of default, a terrible thing to inflict on the American people.
Ultimately, what this highlights is the utter incoherence of the GOP position on the debt ceiling. Republican leaders know they have to raise the debt limit -- they know the threat not to do this isn't credible, and they need to signal to the business community that they don't view this option seriously -- yet they want to continue to use it as leverage to get what they want, anyway.
There will still be bipartisan talks because both the White House and congressional Republicans want to avoid the automatic sequestration talks, but so long as President Obama sticks to his guns and insists that the debt limit is not open to negotiation, GOP leaders will continue to look at a hostage they clearly do not want to shoot.
Maybe they should have thought of this sooner.