Is the debt ceiling finally dead as a weapon?

A man carries the Marine and confederate flags at a tea party/Republican rally in Washington. What's wrong with this picture?
(Andrew Burton / AFP Getty)

The question may seem premature, since the threat of a debt-ceiling breach and a government default still darkens America’s skies, like a thunderhead.

Yet Tuesday’s utter collapse of the House Republican caucus surely demonstrates the severe limitations of the debt ceiling as a weapon of politics: It is too frightful to serve as a weapon of war and more likely to wreak utter destruction among those who dare to wield it than among the enemy.

Two outcomes are possible to the lengthy standoff coming to a head today. Either the debt ceiling will not be breached, in which case the country will have stepped back from the brink; or it will be breached, the consequences of which are horrific. Either way, a threatened breach doesn’t seem like a tactic anyone will be eager to attempt again, even if the respite voted by the Senate and House is only weeks or months in length.

It should have been understood well in advance that threatening a debt-ceiling breach was a futile act, like any hostage-taking. The only issues that can warrant such an extreme strategy are those on which absolutely no political agreement is possible. (“Defunding” the Affordable Care Act, for example.) To menace America’s credit in such cases creates a Sophie’s choice between capitulation to an impossible demand and financial Armageddon.


Nobody in politics really wishes to labor under irreconcilable tension -- no one, that is, except absolute political nihilists like the tea party wing of the House GOP. Eventually a bloc of sane, or scared, legislators will back away from the abyss. Or, alternatively, the nation will go over the cliff. Either way, this is a onetime event, never to be repeated.

(There is, actually, one other possibility -- the country breaches the limit, or even defaults, and nothing bad happens. That ends the debt ceiling as a weapon too -- who needs a mortar without ammunition?)

The real imponderable is the effect this whole affair will have on the Republican Party and its tea party wing. The disaster for both lies in the fact that, having abandoned the original rationale for the standoff, defunding Obamacare, and having failed to offer any other rationale for their intransigence, they can’t explain why they have put the country through this ordeal.

Most responsible GOP constituencies see the House majority’s behavior as inexcusable. Even the Koch brothers disavowed the shutdown and debt standoff as a tool for chipping away at the Affordable Care Act. The Chamber of Commerce, Wall Street, the nation’s businesses small and large all are demanding an end. Nearly 1 million government workers are in financial agony, as are millions of business owners, homeowners, veterans, investors, parents, vacationers -- as the shutdown continues fewer and fewer Americans aren’t affected. The opinion polls are almost unanimous: Support for the Republicans is at the vanishing point.

Political experts on left and right are asking the same question: What are the choices facing the Republicans today? Even before this affair, an inexorable demographic trend was turning the GOP into a marginal, regional party, its base voters aging, white and resentful over changes to the country they can’t undo. The party’s fate in California, where its power has dwindled to the point that it has lost the outsized veto over the budget and taxes it had held in both legislative chambers, now looks like its national destiny.

The party and its backers will need to marginalize the extreme rightists who brought the nation to the brink and the GOP to self-destruction by disavowing the need to govern at all. No less a reliable conservative voice than the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin now decries the “fringe” candidates and “anti-government right-wingers” who have co-opted the party.

Remarkably, the GOP old guard has remained silent throughout this slow-motion train wreck. Neither George H.W. Bush nor George W. Bush spoke out against the shutdown strategy. Bruce Bartlett, a former aide to the elder Bush and Jack Kemp, was asking Tuesday on Twitter why Bob Dole and Howard Baker, or former Republican Treasury Secretaries George Shultz, Jim Baker and Hank Paulson, have remained silent. That’s a signal that an entirely new generation of leaders will have to shoulder the burden of remaking the party.

Over the last few weeks the party of business became the nation’s greatest threat to business. One can only hope that it now understands the consequences of its irresponsibility. America’s agony may not be over yet -- the next day or so will tell the tale. Whatever happens, the GOP has a lot of rebuilding to do, though no more than the nation as a whole.