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Are Republican Candidates Crazy or Just Cynical About the Debt Ceiling? | The Nation

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Are Republican Candidates Crazy or Just Cynical About the Debt Ceiling?

It has been the duty of every economics reporter of late to explain how a failure to raise the federal debt ceiling by the August 2 deadline would have disastrous, far-reaching consequences, so I won’t rehash them all here. The basic take away is that the US government would stop paying either its creditors or its beneficiary recipients. The result would be massive pain for the recipients of federal spending, such as the elderly, cash flow problems for government contractors, panic in the bond markets, higher interest rates and economic collapse.

It is precisely because the results would be so terrible that President Obama knows he cannot allow this to happen and Republicans have so much leverage to impose their unwise and unpopular program of fiscal austerity on the American public by threatening not to raise the debt ceiling. So you would think that anyone who wishes to one day assume the responsibilities of the Oval Office would share Obama’s concern and oppose such reckless behavior. But you’d be wrong. Instead the Republican candidates for president, including possible candidate Sarah Palin, say they oppose raising the debt ceiling.

Taken at their word—which of course they shouldn’t be—most of the Republican candidates are not just saying they would like a deficit reduction deal to be part of the debt ceiling vote. They are actually saying that the optimal outcome is no debt ceiling increase. This is an important distinction. The relatively mainstream Republican position—that the debt ceiling should be raised in conjunction with a debt reduction package and not raising it is the fall back option if a deal cannot be passed—is silly enough: raising the debt ceiling is required by past actions, such as George W. Bush’s tax cuts and multiple Asian land wars. But it is less crazy than saying that the debt ceiling simply should not be raised and a massive deal to cut spending is actually their second choice. But that’s the stance many Republican presidential candidates are taking. Tim Pawlenty told Iowa voters, "I hope and pray and believe they should not raise the debt ceiling. These historic, dramatic moments where you can draw a line in the sand and force politicians to actually do something bold and courageous are important moments.” The pound of flesh Pawlenty demands for raising the debt ceiling, and reluctantly at that, is a balanced budget amendment. Palin told Newsweek that we should simply not raise the debt ceiling and avoid defaulting on our debt by focusing on paying off the debt first and cutting all other spending to the amount of revenue we have. Meanwhile Representative Michele Bachmann has promised to not vote for any debt ceiling increase unless it contains a repeal of the Affordable Care Act. And a pony. Pawlenty and Bachmann both failed to answer an inquiry as to why they would prefer no debt ceiling increase to making a deal.

Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman say that raising the debt ceiling should happen only in conjunction with a major reduction in projected deficits. Both avoided answering a query as to whether the House Republicans’ recent refusal to any increase in revenue expenditures as part of such a deal is a wise move. Romney said through a spokesperson, "A vote on raising the debt ceiling has to be accompanied by a major effort to restructure and reduce the size of government.”

It’s especially disheartening to watch the behavior of Huntsman, Pawlenty and Romney, who portray themselves as serious about governing. Should one of them become president and, like Obama, inherit a struggling economy with foreign occupations requiring increased deficit spending, will they rue the precedent they have set: that routine government business, and by extension the whole American government and economy, can be held for ransom? In fairness, such myopia when running for president is a bipartisan problem. In 2006, then-Senator Obama voted against raising the debt ceiling under President Bush. But there was a crucial difference: the Democrats were casting a purely symbolic vote to protest the Bush administration’s policies. They did not actually filibuster the debt ceiling increase. Today Senate Republicans threaten to filibuster a debt ceiling vote that does not meet their specifications and House Republicans threaten to vote the debt ceiling increase down. And the Republican candidates for president encourage this behavior, with some even staking out more extreme positions. What’s unclear is whether this shows that they don’t care about the American economy, or they are just cynically playing to their base, confident that House Speaker John Boehner and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell will do the dirty work of cutting a deal with President Obama. And it’s hard to say which answer is scarier.

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