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Day July 30, 2011

The dynamics of the debt ceiling endgame

I’m still sort of amazed at the amount of commentary that seems to skirt the basic issue here. The hardliners in the House are, dominantly speaking, the House freshman. The class of 2010, that were driven by the “Tea Party” insurgency, and won their seats by beating incumbents in primary elections.

They’re not afraid of criticism from the left — even when that “left” is an organization as staunchly business-oriented and traditionally Republican as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

They’re afraid that later this year, their local base, and local Tea Party organizations, will “primary them from the right.” They’re afraid, in other words, that someone else will repeat the process on them. Paint them as going to Washington and selling out. So the “Class of 2010” will probably remain largely intransigent in this process.

What seems to mystify everyone is why Boehner seems to keep courting them. He knows this. Every political strategist in the country knows this.

The problem is, Boehner will only pass a bill by working around, not with, the Class of 2010, by and large. And the calculus on this is simple. He needs House Democrats to vote for the final bill, and more moderate, longer-term House Republicans. Folks that are slightly less afraid of being reverse-primaried.

But this means making a deal with Democrats involved. Which is almost as bad as agreeing to raise taxes willingly. Which means that the final deal, if indeed one happens, puts Speaker Boehner at risk of losing the Speakership — great risk — and equally great risk of being primaried from the right himself and losing his seat in 2012.

And he knows this. So he’s going to wait until the last possible second. Because he’s got to make the worst decision a politician can make. He’s either going to be an ex-Congressman who saved the U.S. credit rating and helped avoid an even greater Depression, or he’s going to be sitting Speaker who presided over further economic collapse, credit downgrade, and a host of other catastrophes.

And that’s a terrible place to be. If he makes the former choice, I would suggest that we all give him the props he deserves, because he will have committed career suicide, in order to do what’s right for the country. And whether I like Boehner and his beliefs, someone who’s willing to do that deserves our respect.

And if he decides to walk off the cliff with the Class of 2010, then he, and they, will deserve their place in history. And it won’t be a good one.