How Republicans backed themselves into a corner in the debt debate.
Near the end of The Dark Knight, the Joker comes up with a brilliant plan to befuddle Batman and the police. Instead of ordering his henchmen to stand over their hostages, he forces the hostages to stand up and point phony guns at the henchmen. From afar—from, say, a sniper's scope—it looks like the hostages are actually the people to take out.
The gambit doesn't work, for complicated and irrelevant reasons that raise serious questions about spying and cell phone security. It's still a useful way of understanding the switcheroo that Republicans are trying to engineer in the debate over the debt limit. So far their ruse is as unsuccessful as the Joker's was.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, is a Tea Party freshman who's started to speak out on a number of constitutional issues. On Wednesday afternoon, after a meeting with fellow Republican senators, Lee told reporters that Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's plan to shift responsibility for the debt limit from Congress to the president was unacceptable. It gave up the GOP's leverage to push through reforms.
"Why is the president willing to push us into a debt-ceiling-induced financial shortfall by virtue of the fact that he's not willing to convince his party to support a balanced-budget amendment?" asked Lee. "What is so wrong with that request that the president is willing to withhold Social Security payments to current retirees?"
Reporters blanched. One asked whether he was accusing the president of holding the country hostage.
"Yes!" said Lee. "That's exactly what I'm saying. That's absolutely what I'm saying."
What do you need to believe in order to agree with Lee? You need to believe that the Treasury Department is lying about the difficulty of re-jiggering mandatory payments to Social Security recipients, veterans, and everyone else. You also need to believe that the White House relishes a fight that makes Republicans look like zealots ready to risk default for a few days in order to make a point about spending.
The first part of that isn't true. The best evidence Republicans have for it is a Goldman Sachs report—and sure, those guys are trustworthy, right?—which theorizes that the Treasury could avoid default if it prioritized different kinds of spending. The same report warns that this would happen amid a "huge, immediate fiscal retrenchment," and less rosy reports remind us that the Treasury would need to stall some 40 percent to 45 percent of 80 million mandatory monthly payments. And the second part of the argument is hard to comprehend. How could President Obama have so badly misread the debt fight and the GOP's leverage eight months ago if he was gearing up for the battle today?
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.
Photograph of John Boehner and Eric Cantor by Alex Wong/Getty Images.