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August 22, 2013 10:07 AM Let’s Hear It For the Zealots

By Ed Kilgore

It’s one of those stories you read about and maybe write about but don’t quite internalize as a serious possibility until it doesn’t go away: the talk among Republican leaders about fighting the idea of a government shutdown over Obamacare with the idea of a debt limit confrontation over Obamacare. Here’s a fresh report from Caren Bohan of Reuters:

Republican lawmakers, who staunchly oppose President Barack Obama’s signature healthcare law, are considering using a fall showdown over the country’s borrowing limit as leverage to try to delay the law’s implementation.
The idea is gaining traction among Republican leaders in the House of Representatives, aides said on Wednesday. An aide to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said the debt limit is a “good leverage point” to try to force some action on the healthcare law known as “Obamacare.”
“There are plenty of discussions ongoing but no decisions at this point,” said another leadership aide.
Republicans are weighing the tactic as an alternative to another approach that would involve denying funding for the law and threatening a possible government shutdown.

Ezra Klein is now regularly raising alarms about this “Plan B,” which he compares to trading the flu for septic shock:

Anything Republicans might fear about a government shutdown is far more terrifying amidst a debt-ceiling breach. The former is an inconvenience. The latter is a global financial crisis.

So why are congressional Republican leaders flirting with this tactic?

This is a recurring problem with the House GOP leadership. They can’t simply level with their members and say a shutdown is a bad idea, and indeed all of this hostage taking is a bad idea, and House Republicans simply need to recognize that they don’t have the power or political support to stop the Obama administration from implementing laws. Being in the minority is a bummer, which is part of why it makes sense for minorities to be tactically disciplined — that’s how they can regain the majority.
That’s what the GOP leadership thinks, of course, but they can’t say it. if they did say it, they’d be squishes. Appeasers. Traitors, even.

Here’s the problem: For years now, conservative activists (like some of their counterparts on the Left, it must be admitted, though with vastly less impact on actual policymakers) have regularly engaged in what some call Green Lantern theories (all politics is just a matter of willpower) and I’ve called Nike Existentialism (Just Do It!). It’s the belief that the only thing standing between them and total, gloating-over-the-charred-bodies-of-their-enemies political victory is the willingness to risk all to secure it, even if the particular strategy in question is dubious from any rational point of view. So you get campaigns for a government shutdown under the overtly irrational battle cry of “Don’t Blink!” It could just as easily be “Don’t Think!” or “Dare To Be Stupid!”

Now we can all sympathize with political leaders who have to spend a lot of time dealing with this kind of unanswerable “argument,” which is really just the primal cry of a spoiled child denied its way. But when their response is to suggest something even dumber and more destructive, you have to wonder where the grownups are.

So yeah, if Ezra’s right and this debt limit “Plan B” is what is in store for us if the zealots lose their internal strategic battle and the “grownups” win, then let’s hear it for the zealots and their big, stupid Plan A.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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