WASHINGTON - The debt ceiling so far has been a no-cost debate for the Republican presidential candidates. It's unlikely that will change, regardless of the outcome of the high-stakes negotiation.
There is little incentive for the GOP candidates to embrace any deal, much less the kind of compromise needed to attract Democratic votes in Congress and President Obama's approval. So while it's been an easy game for the candidates to spout off on the matter absent any details of a potential deal, even forthcoming specifics on a possible agreement probably won't change the game plan for most of the 2012 hopefuls.
"It used to be your mother said don't say anything if you can't say something nice. Well it's the converse of that," said John Feehery, a lobbyist who spent several years as a House Republican leadership aide.
"[House Speaker] John Boehner (R-Ohio) shouldn't be looking to presidential candidates to say anything nice about this thing," Feehery told The Huffington Post. "If you're a challenger, you can't say, 'Oh that's a great piece of legislation.' You've got to find fault with everything they do. It makes no sense to applaud."
Opposing any debt ceiling increase is attractive because of the overwhelming opposition to such a move. While growing numbers of Americans are concerned about the consequences of failing to raise the debt ceiling, even larger majorities are worried about the consequences of expanding government spending and debt.
Some conservatives thought GOP candidates would put themselves at risk if they opposed a deal and then the U.S. fell into a financial crisis.
"It is possible that voters could blame the resulting financial crisis on Republicans who oppose whatever deal was offered," said Jon Henke, a conservative blogger and consultant. "But we don't really know whether voters would pin the blame for any default situation on Republicans or Democrats."
"Voters will blame politicians for doing something, but in a default situation and the financial crisis that could ensue, voters will also blame politicians for doing nothing," Henke told HuffPost. " If we do default and the bond market punishes us, then god [sic] help any candidates who refused to find a compromise."
Feehery disagreed, along with other Republicans who declined to speak on the record about the political incentives for presidential candidates in this debate.
"If the economy collapses it's going to be on Obama's head. He's running the place," Feehery said.
A Republican political consultant affiliated with one of the GOP candidates outlined a line of attack against Obama if no deal is reached and the bond markets begin to wobble.
"You've got to point to this as another case where a challenge has risen up and someone with no executive ability is again showing a devotion to liberal orthodoxy on taxes: exhibit #642 of a president who is totally without the ability to lead the country in the right direction," the Republican consultant said.
Another Republican said that even if the debt ceiling deal were to include an amendment to the Constitution requiring a balanced budget each year -- a proposal championed by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and other Tea Party leaders -- public support for such an agreement is still only around 50 percent.
But the way in which the Republican candidates have talked about the debt ceiling debate has been revealing.
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) has outright rejected an increase of the $14.3 trillion ceiling, saying she'll vote against it. She has approached the debt ceiling question as a House backbencher, but not necessarily from the perspective of the chief executive. This has allowed her to avoid saying what she would do if a deal came to her desk as president and she had to choose between signing it, vetoing it, or just letting it pass into law without signing it.
A Bachmann spokeswoman did not respond when asked what the candidate would do with an agreement if it reached her desk as president.
Other candidates have commented on the debt ceiling in terms of how they would react as president to any proposed deal. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty has indicated he would rather not see the limit increased but has outlined what he thinks the conditions should be for any hike.
"We need structural, real permanent change. So obviously, the long-term device and my goal should be to get a constitutional amendment to balance the budget," Pawlenty said on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday. "That's going to take some time, so you need some intermediate strategies to peg spending going forward to a percent of GDP so that we have that capped. And in the near-term, you've got to do real reform in spending reductions."
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman have also spoken about spending cuts and caps on future spending, as well as a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.