What are we to make of the fact that two of the top priorities for the 112th Congress, convening for the first time today, involve an irrelevant charade and an irresponsible threat?
Repealing health care, a pure symbolic activity, is one of the first votes scheduled for next week. House Republicans know their bill will not pass the Senate or clear a presidential veto. Maybe they want to get their irrelevant votes out of the way early. But it gets worse.
The bigger story is the truly bizarre threat to freeze the debt ceiling, which could theoretically place the United States in default and spark a larger recession or economic crisis. Alarmingly, the idea is picking up traction among conservative Republicans. And on cue, political reporters have begun speculating that Obama must grant concessions to the fiscal-bully wing of the GOP.
"Some kind of compromise is the likely end-game here, and almost by definition, that compromise is likely to include cuts to domestic spending programs," explained a typical article about the standoff this week.
Yet even Obama, the Commander-in-Compromise, must understand the difference between bargaining for a mixed deal and meeting halfway between responsibility and total, deranged lunacy.
The notion that (some) Republicans are increasing their "leverage" by threatening an economic murder-suicide does not make sense, either. If you think the unthinkable, with Congress actually driving the US into another man-made economic crisis, it would be political suicide. (The 1995 government shutdown famously backfired on Republicans with less at stake. More on that in a moment.) Or if you imagine the more plausible path of Congress merely complaining before folding—the general pattern during recent crises, from the Patriot Act to Iraq to TARP—the fiscal bullies would just look soft to their base, and unserious to everyone else. To that end, conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer recently warned Republicans to "be careful" or they could lose this round when Obama "call[s] their bluff." Indeed, the only way for Obama to falter would be to blink first—which would only empower and invite more bullying. "Weakness is provocative," as the thirteenth and twenty-first secretary of defense always said.