The Public's Cynical Assumption
Greg Sargent reports that the Republican rank and file are fools. And, by the way, so are nearly 30% of Democrats:
A new Pew poll finds that a majority of Republicans voters, and an even larger majority of Tea Party supporters, simply don’t think failing to raise the debt ceiling will lead to a crisis:
By a 53% to 30% margin, most Republicans say that it will not be a major problem if the debt ceiling is not raised by Aug. 2. The balance of opinion is the reverse among Democrats: 56% say it is absolutely essential to meet that deadline to avoid an economic crisis, 28% say it is not. Independents are more divided, though a slim 43% plurality say the country can go past Aug. 2 without major economic problems, while 32% say it is essential to raise the debt limit by this date...
Tea Party Republicans are by far the most unconvinced about the potential fallout from going past the Aug. 2 deadline. Fully 65% of Republicans and Republican leaning independents who agree with the Tea Party see no major problems if this occurs, compared with 45% of Republicans and Republican leaners who do not agree with the Tea Party.
Yes, these are the Koch's little Frankenstiens. Did they know what they were creating?
On the other hand, I'm not sure that this particular polling result is nearly as powerful and important as one might think. Yes, these people may believe that it won't matter if they fail to raise the debt ceiling. But I would guess that most of them are not going to vote on this issue.
Now, it's true that some conservative Republicans in conservative districts may have to face a primary from a Tea Partier if they do it. Live by the sword die by the sword. But it's still hard for me to believe that the two parties can't cobble together enough votes without them.
Nate Silver had an interesting analysis of who these Republicans are relative to their districts and how they are turning the party right:
What I want to draw your attention to, however, is the difference between first-term Republicans, who appear in red in the chart, and the holdovers, who appear in black-and-white. About four-fifths of freshman Republicans are above the regression line, which is formed from the scores of the returning members. Essentially this means that 80 percent of the first-termers are more conservative than you’d “expect” based on knowing how the veteran Republicans are voting.
Through regression analysis, we can determine that the trend is highly statistically significant. (This is also true, incidentally, even if you also account for membership in the Tea Party Caucus.) Although first-term Republicans, like returning members, are somewhat sensitive to the partisanship of their districts, they are nevertheless more conservative across the board once you’ve accounted for it.
The mistake that a lot of first-term members of Congress can make is to assume that electoral environment from which they were elected is one that will persist indefinitely. Most freshmen Representatives aren’t likely to have developed particularly strong constituent services, or to have acquired positions of power within the Congress. These are the kinds of things that help a member get re-elected when the political environment becomes more challenging, as it inevitably will get sooner or later.
But those who stake out ideological positions that are out of step with the voters in their district are liable to be especially vulnerable. Political scientists generally agree that there is a relationship between the ideological views of a Congressman and the share of the vote he tends to get in subsequent elections, with more extreme and partisan members having a higher bar to clear.
So something very probably has to give for the Republicans. Even if the public has become somewhat more conservative on fiscal issues, something which I suspect is true, it is not nearly to the degree reflected in the representation in Congress.
The two most plausible paths are as follows. First, Republicans in Congress will maintain their present course toward more and more conservative views. There will be yet another wave election but this time one that breaks against them, whether in 2012, 2014, 2016 or some combination thereof. One of the more likely scenarios, for instance, is that a conservative Republican like Rick Perry is elected president in 2012 along with a Republican Congress. But the economy continues to sputter, as it often does for as many as 5 to 10 years after a financial crisis. In that case, Democrats might win back 50 or 60 or (who knows) 70 or 80 seats in 2014.
A second scenario is that the Republicans show a little bit more willingness to compromise. Perhaps not a lot, but enough so that the public decides to give both the House Republicans and President Obama another go. This is essentially what happened after 1994: although Republicans in Congress shifted to the right that year, as they have this year, they nevertheless reached a number of bipartisan compromises with President Clinton, and the parties continued to share power.
I suspect that is exactly what John Boehner and that little weasel Eric Cantor are actually going for. Yes, they have to contend with a third of their caucus being totally insane, hence Cantor's role as the voice of their discontent. They have to play it out, let their Teabaggers have their say and then let them go their own way. This means the President must force his party to bear the burden of getting the debt ceiling raised. But considering what he's offered, that is the best deal Republicans have ever had and I'm quite sure that many of them know it. They aren't all stupid.
And as far as the public is concerned, the truth is that this "debt ceiling" argument is a mystifying nonsensical beltway argument that most of the people who gave an opinion on it don't understand and don't really care about. They are in a cynical and despairing mood and when you ask them if not raising the debt ceiling will make any difference, they say no because they don't believe anything that politicians and other authority figures say anymore, not because they think the government's got a secret stash of cash they can dispatch. Think of it as a protest vote --- a statement of disbelief and disregard in the whole process. The particulars of this issue don't matter and if Silver's analysis is right, they may not even matter as much to the Tea Partier's constituents as we think. After all, according to his calculation, these GOP congressmen are actually quite a bit more radical than they are.
I could be wrong and we may still end up blowing this up, but I don't think Boehner and McConnell are worried about public opinion on this issue and I think they believe they can finesse their caucus into doing what needs to be done when the time comes. The issues at hand are about how to properly calibrate the political and procedural leverage they know they have. And it's a lot of leverage.
On the other hand, this result could spook them a little bit.