The last time House Speaker John Boehner hosted a nail-biting debt-ceiling fight, it didn't go so well for him. The Tea Partiers who wanted a fight thought he caved and everyone else thought the House Republicans looked reckless. But Boehner's figured out a better way to play brinksmanship: imagine you're fighting about the debt limit long before you have to. On Tuesday, he praised the whole gut-wrenching process of using what had been a routine legislative procedure as a way to get what he wants. "We shouldn't dread the debt limit. We should welcome it. It's an action-forcing event in a town that has become infamous for inaction."
One of the reasons D.C. has that reputation for inaction is that talking about fake fights is a whole lot easier than waging real ones. Here's the thing: the earliest date that the federal debt limit will next need to be raised is January 2013. The Bush tax cuts, which Boehner is expected to try to get extended in exchange for raising the debt ceiling, expire on January 1. And no deal before then will trigger $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts, including $500 million in defense cuts. Those are all faraway dates that exist in what basically is an imaginary land of "after the presidential election." No one really knows what will happen between now and then. That's why there is some truth to Boehner's clarification on Wednesday, when he told NBC "I'm not threatening default." That's because, at least for 8 months or so, he can't.