Republicans in Washington seem to have recognized that refusing to raise the debt ceiling and putting the nation on the brink of default in a trumped-up "crisis" isn't playing well with the general public, so they're switching tactics.
Now, instead of blindly driving off the cliff of fiscal Armageddon, they are pushing for the Obama administration to prioritize federal obligations — so the country can be late on some bills but not on debt payments, Social Security checks and pay for active-duty members of the military. Apparently it's OK for the government to default on its obligations, as long as they aren't the ones that affect people who tend to vote Republican.
Is that galling or what? One could argue that this shows signs that GOP leadership has finally recognized that refusing to raise the debt ceiling is irresponsible and can only worsen the federal deficit. Last year's debacle proved costly for the federal government and resulted in a credit downgrade.
But you could also argue that it's worse, because the craziness is getting more calculated than ever before. Republicans aren't just threatening to pull the trigger; they are arranging for a tourniquet to help deal with the worst after-effects of what happens when that trigger is pulled. No "temporary insanity" plea for them.
In his news conference Monday, President Barack Obama took the only line one can take with self-destructive hostage-takers. Remember the scene in "The Godfather: Part II" when the senator tries to put the squeeze on Michael Corleone over a gaming license? "Senator? You can have my answer now, if you like. My final offer is this: nothing. Not even the fee for the gaming license, which I would appreciate if you would put up personally."
What President Obama said wasn't quite as dramatic, nor was his delivery quite so cold as Al Pacino's, but its meaning was clear. "The financial well-being is not leverage to be used. The full faith and credit of the United States of America is not a bargaining chip."
The implications? No Plan B for meeting the nation's obligations. No trillion-dollar platinum coins and no negotiations with Congress and no link between the debt ceiling and any reductions in federal spending Republicans want to offer.
As Mr. Obama correctly noted, raising the debt ceiling does not mean additional spending. It is merely an accommodation needed to meet outstanding obligations authorized by Congress. It's making a payment on the credit card balance, not charging anything to the account. Refusing to pay merely makes you a deadbeat — a bad credit risk. That, in turn, raises borrowing costs and adds great uncertainty to the economy.
Republicans claim to care about the nation's deficit. But refusing to raise the debt ceiling can only worsen that imbalance. It's only leverage if Mr. Obama and the Democrats intervene and stop Republicans from harming the country. But here's what happens when you reward bad behavior: You get more of it. So Republicans will keep taking the nation hostage again and again, unless reasonable people take a stand now.
If these members of Congress seriously want to reduce the deficit, there's a much more sensible route to take: Spend less and tax more. How much of each is something that can be negotiated, and Mr. Obama has shown himself willing to do so. Inevitably, it's been Republicans who walk away from that process because the only part of that solution they can support is lowering spending on domestic programs that benefit children, the elderly, the poor, the disabled and the middle class.
If Republicans really wanted to put the president and Democrats in a pickle, they'd start by biting off smaller pieces, pushing for specific deficit-reduction measures that have broad public appeal. Give the Senate reasonable and prudent spending bills that attract substantial bipartisan support. Perhaps even push for the grand bargain that puts the nation on a long-term path toward more sustainable budgetary practices.
Make no mistake, the debt ceiling will be raised in the near future simply because it has to be. The only truly sensible solution requires taking the debt ceiling off the table — permanently, if possible. The public isn't impressed by self-destructive brinkmanship when it's practiced by terrorists with a bomb strapped to their chests, and it's hardly better when it's done by politicians in Washington willing to kill the U.S. economy. Meanwhile, voters will only see Mr. Obama as the resolute hero and Republicans as the sleazy politicians overestimating their clout. Good in a darkened movie theater maybe, but still really bad fiscal policy.