Conservative Fantasies About Debt and Default

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On the right, pundits and activists ignore warnings about what will happen on Aug. 2, telling Republicans not to "capitulate" to any deal

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In a recent column, David Brooks marveled at the GOP's failure to even pursue the debt ceiling deal negotiated by House Speaker John Boehner, despite the possibility that it could result in up to $3 trillion in spending cuts over a decade.

Who was to blame?

In Brooks's telling, it was partly the fault of "Big Government Blowhards," a group he describes as follows:

The talk-radio jocks are not in the business of promoting conservative governance. They are in the business of building an audience by stroking the pleasure centers of their listeners.

They mostly give pseudo Crispin's Day speeches to battalions of the like-minded from the safety of the conservative ghetto. To keep audience share, they need to portray politics as a cataclysmic, Manichaean struggle. A series of compromises that steadily advance conservative aims would muddy their story lines and be death to their ratings.

Is he exaggerating? Even if there are folks portraying politics as a cataclysmic, Manichean struggle, do they have any influence?

Let's put it this way. My colleague Megan McArdle has written a post showing the sorts of specific, draconian spending cuts that would be required if we didn't raise the debt ceiling. They'd be impermissible, even to grassroots conservatives. But the grassroots don't trust her analysis. Moody's warns that they'll downgrade the country's credit rating if a debt ceiling deal isn't forthcoming, and The New York Times reports that Wall Street is preparing for crisis. But the grassroots don't trust financial elites or the mainstream media. It's foolhardy to play games with something so serious as the debt ceiling, various renowned economists warn. But the grassroots don't trust elite academics or the heads of international organizations. So what are the people they do trust telling them?

Here's Rush Limbaugh, telling his listeners that all the dire warnings are an old Ivy League prank the elites are playing on the people:

It hits you upside the head, a cold ice shower. You realize what suckers they think we are. You realize the patterns -- the playbooks, the tactics, the scare tactics, the fear-mongering, crisis mongering, all of this -- are written down. It's taught. This is not instinctive. This stuff, I guess, is what these people learn at Harvard and Yale and the Kennedy School of Government, wherever else they go to get educated or how they're mentored. 

Here's Mark Levin comparing Obama to a dictator, insisting that any cuts will  be to things the federal government shouldn't be doing anyway, and explaining that political fallout won't matter:

Now, all the parasites, all the hangers-on, all the have-nots that think the haves are supposed to subsidize them, now they'll be squealing like stuck pigs, but they squeal like stuck pigs if you don't increase their payments by 5 or 10% every year.  Who gives a damn? 

And politically, you know how they're gonna vote, liberal, liberal, always liberal.

Here's Sean Hannity, interviewing Sarah Palin:

HANNITY: What would be acceptable -- because you're a conservative, you're well known in the Tea Party, you're a Tea Party leader. I'm a conservative, a registered conservative. I would prefer cut, cap and balance. But I mean cut now, not later, not 12 years down the road. If you can't get that through, the country can't default. I think that's a reality you agree with, is that correct?

PALIN: Sure. We cannot default, but we have to -- we cannot afford to retreat right now, either. Now is not the time to retreat.

HANNITY: Right.

PALIN: This is the time to reload. And we reload with reality by giving facts and numbers to the American public so that those of us across the U.S. can start chiming in and letting our representatives know that we will not capitulate, we will not hand over more power, which I believe is unconstitutional, to President Obama to further manipulate our economy.

So a deal is necessary, but "capitulating" to one is not permissible.

Then there's Tony Blankley of The Washington Times, who compares the White House and Senate Republicans to movie villains who brought about nuclear Armageddon:

Senior elements both in the White House and the bipartisan Senate may be planning a trick not to avoid the Aug. 2 crisis, but to better politically exploit the possible chaos that would follow such a crisis.

This reminds me of the scene in the 1962 black comedy about the Cold War, "Dr. Strangelove," in which the lunatic German scientist starts calculating how he and a select group of male politicians and generals could survive the nuclear annihilation of both the U.S. and the Soviet Union by living in mine shafts with many sexy young women and a nuclear engine to provide the energy for such a luxurious, fast-breeding, molelike existence. Planning for political survival after a debt crisis is about as disreputable and foolish as Dr. Strangelove's mine shaft survival plan.

And he wants a deal!

"Now, as summer 2011 reaches its steamy zenith," he writes, "it falls to the only group of Washington politicians still trying to actually fix the debt problem -- the House Republicans -- to deny those political nihilists (in both parties and in both branches) the realization of their truly abhorrent plans."

It's no wonder tea-party Republicans in the House feel unhelpful pressure from the grassroots. They're being presented with an upside down vision of the world, where the whole debt ceiling debate is an Ivy League conspiracy, compromising to solve it is both lamentable reality and foolish capitulation and the only sober-minded people in DC are the tea-party Republicans in the House.

Over the years, as I've critiqued the factually inaccurate, logically unsound rhetoric of people like Limbaugh and Levin, I've had many people in general agreement with my arguments say, "But why bother with those people? It's pointless. There's nothing to be done about it." Another common response: "Who cares what they say anyway?"

We're finding out.


Image credit: Reuters
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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