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Lesson From the Debt Ceiling Negotiations: The GOP Is Now Run by Far Right Ideologues

07/24/2011 03:43 pm ET | Updated Sep 23, 2011

If one message has emerged from the negotiations to raise the debt ceiling, I think it's this: The Republican Party, at least in the House of Representatives, has been captured by far-right ideologues who are either ignorant of, or indifferent to, the practical effect of their insistence on ideological purity. And in doing so, they are putting the economic health of the nation at risk.

Raising the debt ceiling is not something that should be controversial. Congress (mostly with Republicans in power, and with the support of current GOP leaders) raised the debt ceiling 19 times during George W. Bush's presidency, and 17 times under Ronald Reagan (including with Reagan's support). And if you need any further proof that raising the debt ceiling is not a liberal enterprise, the very conservative, Obama-opposing, business-protecting U.S. Chamber of Commerce has come out strongly in favor of raising the ceiling.

More importantly, something that isn't noted often enough is that raising the debt ceiling is not an action that involves new spending. Rather, it is a decision for the United States of America to stand by commitments that it has already made (and has made via the democratic process of congresses passing legislation that was then signed into law by presidents).

So opposing raising the debt ceiling is not in itself a move to stop future spending. More accurately, it is an attempt to go back and repeal old legislation, but without the guts -- and political cost -- of doing so head-on.

Opposing raising the debt ceiling is essentially an announcement to the world the United States will not stand by its commitments. No American should want to be part of such a statement.

Tea Party Republicans can talk all they want about the effects of a U.S. default being "exaggerated," but their position is not supported by an array of economic and political experts across the ideological spectrum, including major financial institutions like JPMorgan Chase, with the company's chief executive calling a default "catastrophic." Even Ronald Reagan wrote a letter in 1983 warning of the danger of not raising the debt ceiling, arguing:

The full consequences of a default -- or even the serious prospect of default -- by the United States are impossible to predict and awesome to contemplate. Denigration of the full faith and credit of the United States would have substantial effects on the domestic financial markets and the value of the dollar.

Whether you think the country's spending and/or debt is a problem or not is not the discussion here. That's a separate debate. The two issues are only linked in that those who argue that the country's spending (but not the deficit, apparently, since these same people oppose any tax increases, even though state and federal taxes as a percentage of GDP are at their lowest level since 1950) is a problem are using the need to raise the debt ceiling as a tool to blackmail those who disagree. Otherwise, the two issues do not have any business being part of the same debate, since one addresses how we should proceed in the future (debt/spending), while the other asks if we will honor the promise to pay for money already spent in the past.

The bottom line is that despite the spending/debt debate, Tea Party ignorance (or willful indifference) and blind ideology is putting the economy of the United States at risk. These Republicans are putting fidelity to Grover Norquist's fringe anti-tax fanaticism above what is best for the country.

And it's not like the Tea Party position is supported by many Americans. In a recent poll 66 percent of respondents said the debt-ceiling solution should consist of both spending cuts and tax increases, with a Gallup poll discussed by Nate Silver revealing similar results.

(We won't even get into the fact that a key Republican in the House, Eric Cantor, may stand to financially profit if the country defaults.)

Two columns by David Brooks, a year and a half apart, illustrate how the GOP (at least in the House) has been captured by far-right Tea Party ideology (and lost all touch with practical governing). And why it's so dangerous for America's future.

On November 1, 2010, with the Republicans about to make gains in the midterm elections, Brooks wrote how pragmatic conservatives would keep the influx of Tea Party ideologues in line. He paraphrases Cantor as saying: "We can't do anything that might unsettle [skeptical Americans], like shutting down the government," before predicting: "Republican leaders are also prepared to take what they can get, even if it's not always what they would like."

And to those who would argue that "there is no way the fire-breathing Tea Party-types are going to cooperate," Brooks had an answer: While he acknowledged the Tea Partiers would need to be addressed, he concluded with these paragraphs:

But this leadership-versus-the-crazies storyline is overblown. The new Republicans may distrust government, but this will be a Republican class with enormous legislative experience. Tea Party hype notwithstanding, most leading G.O.P. candidates either served in state legislatures or previously in Washington. The No Compromise stalwarts like Senator Jim DeMint have a big megaphone but few actual followers within the Senate.



Over all, if it is won, a Republican House majority will be like a second marriage. Less ecstasy, more realism.

At the time, I thought Brooks was delusional. It seemed clear that the Tea Party ideologues would put their far-right, impractical fiscal positions ahead of the best interests of the vast majority of Americans. And that is exactly what happened, something that Brooks was forced to confront. on July 4 In a column lamenting the inability of the Republicans in the House to accept a staggeringly GOP-friendly deal to raise the debt ceiling (something he called "the mother of all no-brainers"), he wrote:

Over the past few years, [the GOP] has been infected by a faction that is more of a psychological protest than a practical, governing alternative.

The members of this movement do not accept the logic of compromise, no matter how sweet the terms. If you ask them to raise taxes by an inch in order to cut government by a foot, they will say no. If you ask them to raise taxes by an inch to cut government by a yard, they will still say no.

The members of this movement do not accept the legitimacy of scholars and intellectual authorities. A thousand impartial experts may tell them that a default on the debt would have calamitous effects, far worse than raising tax revenues a bit. But the members of this movement refuse to believe it.

The members of this movement have no sense of moral decency. A nation makes a sacred pledge to pay the money back when it borrows money. But the members of this movement talk blandly of default and are willing to stain their nation's honor.

The members of this movement have no economic theory worthy of the name.

He reaches the conclusion that the Republican Party, as dominated by these Tea Party ideologues, just may be an "odd protest movement that has separated itself from normal governance."

Brooks's nearly 180-degree turnaround in 20 eight months gives stark illustration to what the Tea Party/GOP is doing to our nation. And Americans have noticed, with buyer's remorse breaking out across the country. Several recently elected Tea Party/GOP governors have seen plunging approval ratings, including in New Jersey, Ohio, Michigan, Florida and Wisconsin; a conservative New York House district recently elected a Democrat in a special election; the senate recall effort in Wiscosin has gained momentum; and a recent poll found President Obama ahead of every Republican presidential challenger, just to point to some more prominent examples.

Brooks and American voters are starting to realize that the Tea Party/GOP is an intransigent, dangerous force in the country, as they value far-right ideological purity over everything else.

But this epiphany won't change anything if Republicans in the House lead the country's economy over a cliff on the debt ceiling.