“These People Are Dangerous”

by Jonathan Rauch

I like the tone of the President's press conference on the debt-limit negotiations. It had the right mixture of admonition, sympathy, detachment, and menace. I especially liked the sympathy. It's not as if most Republicans enjoy having a gun held to their head by their least reasonable constituents. Nor do they actually want to default on the national debt. The basic problem is that they are terrified of their base—the political equivalent of being a battered wife.

Unfortunately, to get a debt-limit deal through, they need to be made equally frightened of default. Today's story about Italy (which could go the way of Greece, but on a far larger scale) may help. Europe is teetering on the brink of a continental solvency crisis, which could knock the whole developed world back into recession, making it even harder, if you can imagine that, for the United States to dig out of our own hole. Allowing the U.S. to default, even briefly, while Europe is on edge is just crazy.

I'll always remember the moment in 1995 when I realized that Newt Gingrich's Republican Revolutionaries had gone too far. As you recall, they, like the current bunch, were freshly elected hotheads who thought they had a mandate to get tough with Big Government and believed they could hammer a weak Democratic president into submission. One day my father, a conservative independent who until then had shown little sympathy for Bill Clinton, looked up from his paper, having just read about House Republicans' musing that they might default on the national debt if Clinton didn't knuckle under. "These people," he said, "are dangerous."

Republicans ought to remember that nothing would whisk them back to long-term minority status faster than being perceived by the broad middle as unfit to govern. Obama clearly understands as much and is doing everything in his power to broadcast tough reasonableness. He's setting the Republicans up for another Hurricane Katrina moment—but one of their own making.