What Will Happen When Obama Endorses Clinton?

Something political has been nagging at the back of my mind for a few days.

Sometime very soon, Barack Obama will endorse Hillary Clinton and throw his full support behind her. He hasn’t yet officially, not while there are still Democratic primaries to be decided, but he has been quietly telling donors and major Democratic operatives that the Democratic race is over for about two months. Once the primaries are over and Clinton has over 50% of the pledged delegates, she becomes the presumptive nominee and there’s no longer any reason for Obama to stay neutral on the sidelines, not when it’s important to turn all guns on Donald Trump.

So, I expect Obama’s full-throated endorsement of Clinton in mid-June.

What’s nagging me is this — How will Bernie Sanders’ most committed supporters take Obama’s inevitable endorsement of Clinton, especially if, as seems likely, Sanders’ inner circle (Jeff Weaver, Jane Sanders) are still insisting that they’ll flip the super-delegates and take the nomination fight to the floor of the convention two months later?

While there will be some who will react with a, “We fought the good fight, we came up short, and there are bigger fish to fry,” I suspect that for a decent sized number, those most committed to the delegitimization narrative that Clinton is corrupt and a sell-out, they will take Obama’s endorsement as yet another sign of a corrupt Democratic establishment out to screw over their candidate and their cause.

The Nevada convention over the weekend is just a microcosm of what could ensue. As Josh Marshall writes, “If you pump people up with bogus arguments that they’re losing because they got cheated and the system was rigged, you get people who are really angry, genuinely angry, even though they’re upset that their efforts to reverse the result of the actual election didn’t work.” These Sanders supporters aren’t going to go quietly. They already feel the system is stacked against them; Obama endorsing Clinton before the convention would be the ultimate confirmation of that belief. I’m not sure that’s a good look for Sanders’ hardest of the hard core and the causes they support. Is it worth it to go down fighting for 100% of the cake if it risks losing the whole cake to Donald Trump when they can settle for 85% of the cake? That’s not my best metaphor, but it makes the point — they can fight for their lost cause at the risk of losing the larger war.

A lot will depend, I think, on how graciously Bernie Sanders concedes after the last primary. If he endorses Clinton in June, I believe his supporters will largely support him. But if he vows to fight on to the convention, where he’ll lose on the first ballot, we could see the chaos on the Democratic side that, only two months ago, we all expected on the Republican side.

Which way will Sanders go? Paul Krugman wrote this: “It has been obvious for quite a while that Sanders — not just his supporters, not even just his surrogates, but the candidate himself — has a problem both in facing reality and in admitting mistakes. The business with claiming that Clinton only won conservative states in the deep South told you that; and even before, there were strong indications that he would not accept defeat gracefully or even rationally.” My guess is that as Sanders’ routes to victory are closed off — the primary loses, the mounting delegate totals, the eventual Obama endorsement — Sanders will become like a caged animal, ready and willing to lash out at anything. As Michael Caine says in The Dark Knight, “Some people just want to watch the world burn,” and Sanders increasingly seems like such a person. Denied the prize of the presidency, he’d rather see his cause burn than compromise for less than everything.

After Scalia: The Coming Clash of the Executive and the Legislative Branches over the Judiciary

Saturday afternoon, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died.

I was having dinner with friends at Farpoint. One of my dinner companions happened to look over at the flatscreen televisions hanging over the bar at Northern Lights, and she audibly gasped. “Scalia died.” The rest of us turned, looked, and gibbered things like “Wow” and “Damn.” I pulled out my phone and made a quick Facebook post: “Quick thought on Scalia. I harbor doubts the Senate will confirm a replacement before the election. McConnell would say the next president could, hoping that the next president is a Republican.”

I was not at all surprised when I discovered shortly after that that several Senators, including Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had already made statements that President Barack Obama shouldn’t be allowed to replace Scalia. I had expected an action like this; just two months ago, I wondered aloud if a Republican Senate would confirm any court nominees in the next administration, if Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders were to win: “I can sadly envision a scenario where the Supreme Court stands at 6 justices by the end of the next president’s first term due to a refusal by a Republican Senate to confirm replacements.” Who was to think that such a thing would happen now?

In The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf looked at why Cruz’s stance is illegitimate and counter to the Constitution he claims to venerate. Then there’s Mitch McConnell’s stance; he says that the American people should have a say in the next Supreme Court justice, but the American people did have a say when they elected Barack Obama to another four-year term in 2012. Then there’s the fact that Anthony Kennedy was confirmed to the Supreme Court in a presidential election year; just because there’s an election doesn’t remove the President’s right to nominate a court justice, nor does it absolve the Senate of its duties. There simply is not a rule, either written or unwritten, that a Supreme Court nomination in a presidential election year is illegitimate; the Republicans are making shit up to give their position a reasonable-sounding cover.

This is not to say that I expect the Republicans in the Senate to consider a Supreme Court nomination. The Constitution says they must give “advice and consent”; if they withhold consent by not scheduling hearings or votes, they have that right.

This won’t trigger a Constitutional Crisis, as Paul Krugman suggested this morning in the New York Times. But it is a profound test of the ability of the American political system to function. Presidential democracies are prone to fail, as political scientist Juan Linz pointed out a number of years ago. The problem with presidential democracies is that the executive and legislative branches derive their legitimacy separately, and there’s no way to resolve the tension between them when they come into conflict, such as when a president has to make a nomination for the Supreme Court but the Senate is unwilling to consider any nominee.

Some, like Mark Joseph Stern and Ezra Klein, think that McConnell and his Republican allies have overreached by their blanket refusal to consider a nominee. Maybe. It probably isn’t in the Republican Party’s best interests to make the Supreme Court vacancy an ongoing issue the closer we approach the November elections. But, I harbor doubts. The Supreme Court is a pretty nebulous issue for most people. Heck, ten percent of college graduates think Judge Judy is a Supreme Court justice.

I expect Obama to fulfill his constitutional duty, as he says he will, of nominating a replacement for Scalia. I’ve seen a number of suggestions proferred; Michael Tomasky has a list, so does NPR.

I also expect Mitch McConnell and Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley to treat the nomination like McConnell and Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi treated Obama’s budget last week — not worth their time or effort.

How this develops over the next few months will be endlessly fascinating. I am not filled with optimism.

David Brooks’ Historical Perspective

David Brooks penned a column in today’s New York Times about how the presidential campaign has made him realize how much he has taken President Obama for granted and that, all things considered, he (Obama, that is) is not a monster.

I can see the two reactions this column will generate.

On the right, the reaction would be that Brooks is a RINO, a Republican in Name Only. But that’s a charge that’s been leveled at Brooks for years. The Republican Party he yearns for exists only in the halcyon memories of his youth, and his paeons to that Republican Party fall upon deaf ears.

On the left, the reaction would be, “What took you so long, Brooks? We’ve only been telling you all this for seven years. Did it really take a Ted Cruz for you to see Obama for who he truly is? If you want a Burkean conservative, Obama is your guy!” Compared to political parties internationally, the United States has a conservative, center-right party (the Democrats) and a radical, far right party (the Republicans). The conservative reformer that Brooks yearns for has been sitting in the Oval Office since January 2009.

Brooks won’t make anyone see Obama differently in the moment. I suspect that, in the historical retrospective, twenty years from now, Brooks’ point-of-view expressed here will be a major part of the historical consensus on Obama.

Joe Biden’s Window Closes

I admit, I’m disappointed that Joe Biden isn’t running for president. His speech yesterday in the Rose Garden, with his wife Jill to one side and the president to the other, was pure Joe Biden — funny, warm, forceful, and a little bitrandom. His window closed, and maybe it was never open, but I’ll miss Joe Biden.

The thing that really gets me, though, is this picture of the Bidens and the president leaving the Rose Garden, the president’s hand on Biden’s shoulder.

Historically, presidents and vice presidents haven’t had warm relationships. Even Clinton and Gore didn’t have a great relationship. Yet, these two, Obama and Biden, have bonded in a surprising and touching way. The president has called Biden his “brother,” and Biden has talked about how their Irish ancestors came from neighboring towns and arrived on these shores at roughly the same time and how that ties them together.

I’ll miss Joe Biden. He did a lot of good.

The Ire of Reince Priebus

I love it when Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, writes me. He’s usually incensed about something and expects me to be so, as well. And, of course, he then hits me up for money.

What has raised his ire this week? President Obama’s appearance at the National Prayer Breakfast, which I wrote about last week. Right in the subject line, Reince says, “Demand Obama apologize for his insulting remarks.”

I don’t want to repeat myself, that’s why I’m including the link to what I said before, but I’m a bit baffled by what, specifically, was insulting and demands an apology. Can you enlighten me, Reince?

Rather than lift people up and bring them together at the National Prayer Breakfast last week, President Obama has managed to insult, hurt and offend.

While speaking about how we should grapple with the threat of radical Islamic terrorism, Obama said:

“And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.”

Now is not the time to divide Americans and attack Christians. The crusades are over — and have been for some 1,000 years now.

Now is the time to stand strong and united against those who threaten our country, our families and our freedom.

Obama needs to stop lecturing the American people and insulting Christians. And he needs to start focusing on the very real, very current and very dangerous threat at hand by Islamic extremists.

Add your name to demand Obama apologize for his insulting remarks.

Reince, really. Don’t take me for an idiot. You’re taking one sentence out of a larger speech and using it to completely the miss the point.

Here, from the Washington Post, is the full context of that single sentence.

How do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities — the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religious for their own murderous ends?

Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ. Michelle and I returned from India — an incredible, beautiful country, full of magnificent diversity — but a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs — acts of intolerance that would have shocked Gandhiji, the person who helped to liberate that nation.

So this is not unique to one group or one religion. There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith. In today’s world, when hate groups have their own Twitter accounts and bigotry can fester in hidden places in cyberspace, it can be even harder to counteract such intolerance. But God compels us to try. And in this mission, I believe there are a few principles that can guide us, particularly those of us who profess to believe.

And, first, we should start with some basic humility. I believe that the starting point of faith is some doubt — not being so full of yourself and so confident that you are right and that God speaks only to us, and doesn’t speak to others, that God only cares about us and doesn’t care about others, that somehow we alone are in possession of the truth.

Our job is not to ask that God respond to our notion of truth — our job is to be true to Him, His word, and His commandments. And we should assume humbly that we’re confused and don’t always know what we’re doing and we’re staggering and stumbling towards Him, and have some humility in that process. And that means we have to speak up against those who would misuse His name to justify oppression, or violence, or hatred with that fierce certainty. No God condones terror. No grievance justifies the taking of innocent lives, or the oppression of those who are weaker or fewer in number.

And so, as people of faith, we are summoned to push back against those who try to distort our religion — any religion — for their own nihilistic ends. And here at home and around the world, we will constantly reaffirm that fundamental freedom — freedom of religion — the right to practice our faith how we choose, to change our faith if we choose, to practice no faith at all if we choose, and to do so free of persecution and fear and discrimination.

In context, Reince, the sentence that raised your ire is an example of how the practice of a religion was perverted into something against its professed beliefs. The point of the anecdote comes at the end of this extract: “we are summoned to push back against those who try to distort our religion — any religion — for their own nihilistic ends.” By taking one sentence and holding it up as example of the president slamming Christianity, Reince, you missed that he was offering that sentence so he could criticize and condemn the very ethos that allowed such actions to happen.

Reince, you’re attacking the president for the exact words he uttered but not the exact meaning behind them. And, in so doing, you look like a putz.

Obama, the National Prayer Breakfast, and the Crusades

On Thursday, President Obama addressed the National Prayer Breakfast, as has been his custom during his presidency. This year, his remarks drew the ire of conservatives and religious conservatives; as an example, Bloomberg News headlined an article with the verb “Troll” to describe the president’s remarks. What was so controversial? The president acknowledged a settled historical fact — Christianity, like other faiths, has a long and bloody history of religious violence and inhuamnity justified by faith that is contrary to the values it professes. On the right, this provoked a loud and sustained whine, from “they weren’t really Christians” (Franklin Graham, I think) and “that was Catholics, not Protestants” (Erick Erickson) to defenses of the Crusades (Ann Coulter and Jonah Goldberg).

My reaction to the reaction is one of bafflement. As I said, it’s a settled historical fact the Christians shed a lot of blood over the centuries for religious reasons. Christians did what they genuinely believed their god told them to do, from brutally stamping out heresy in the early centuries to atrocities such as the Fourth Crusade and the Albigensian Crusade in the Middle Ages. And Protestantism isn’t immune; it has the Thirty Years War on its hands, and Americans venerate the Pilgrims and Puritans, factions who were every bit as willing to torture and execute those they viewed as heretics as the early Christians. Yes, Graham, the Bible was used to justify slavery. Yes, Erickson, Protestants executed Quakers like Mary Dyer. Yes, Coulter and Goldberg, Muslims were not the only targets in the Crusades; Christians waged war against fellow, though different-thinking, Christians in the Crusades as well.

I’m not trying to dump on Christianity this morning, that’s not my point. My point is that an honest appraisal of the religion’s history shows that Christianity is what the President said, a religion that preaches good that, in the past, was capable of great violence done in the name of its god. The president’s point was that we see the same thing happening elsewhere in the world today; people doing evil things in the name of their god, and we must remember they are the exception, not the rule. By painting ISIS as the face of Islam, we are tarnishing the religion by taking its most extreme elements as the norm. In other words, Christians who are throwing stones at Islam over ISIS are forgetting — or worse, wilfully misremembering — their own history.

Paul Waldman, for The American Prospect, explores why conservatives were especially incensed by the president’s remarks and why some, like Erick Erickson, sputtered rage that the President claims to be a Christian. (Contra Bill Maher, I don’t believe the President is a closeted atheist. I think he’s very liberal in his Christianity, intellectual and universalist.) Obama’s Christianity has room for doubt and questioning, and that seems to be the thing his critics this week cannot abide. Obama’s faith can acknowledge and embrace the messy truth of the past. His critics’ cannot; they’re forced to deny history or attempt to justify it.

Finally, I also agree with Waldman that presidents shouldn’t attend the National Prayer Breakfast. Despite its name, it’s not an official function. It’s an event put in by a Christian fundamentalist outfit. Its name implies that it’s inclusive. The reality is that the National Prayer Breakfast is anything but.

The RNC: Normalizing the Unthinkable

Is the Republican Party trying to forment an armed rebellion against the government? I am forced to ask this question because of the fundraising e-mail I received today from the Republican National Committee.

The e-mail from RNC press secretary Kirsten Kukowski begins:

In just ONE week, under the tyrannical leadership of President Obama and the Democrats:

  • Obama abused his power by issuing an executive order on immigration.
  • The Obama Administration lied about ObamaCare enrollment numbers.
  • Mary Landrieu failed to get the Keystone Pipeline passed through the Senate.

All this shows how much things can change in just one week — and how important it is that we win the final races of the 2014 election next week.

I’m not going to argue this list, though I have no idea how the third — the Republicans failing a cloture vote on Landrieu’s Keystone XL bill — is “tyrany.”

What concerns me is the rhetoric — “tyrannical leadership.” There has always been demonization of political opponents in American history — even George Washington was denounced as a monarchal tyrant during his presidency, and there’s an argument to be made that a hostile press drove him from office and was the reason he didn’t run for a third term — yet the character of this feels different. There have been fringe voices arguing for years that Obama is a tyrant, but the important thing is that they were fringe voices. Then, a few days ago, Senator Ted Cruz compared Obama to the Roman senator Catiline and said he was “openly desirous to destroy the Constitution and this Republic.” Now, the RNC is pushing the idea that Obama is “tyrannical leadership.”

They are using the rhetoric to raise money. I get that. The RNC’s donor base is implaccably hostile toward the President. Yet, by their rhetoric, the RNC is also normalizing the idea that Obama is a tyrant. That can’t be by accident; the formative American national myth is that the colonies became a nation by rebelling and throwing off a tyrannical King. If the RNC keeps pushing the idea that Obama is a tyrant, then aren’t they normalizing the idea so that the unthinkable — removal of a tyrant through extra-legal means — becomes thinkable?

It’s worrying.

The Affordable Care Act: Back at the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court has decided to take up one of the legal challenges to the insurance subsidies offered through the federal insurance exchange, Healthcare.gov.

This is an appeal of the case in the fourth circuit, where federal subsidies were upheld. The tenth circuit case, where the Appeals court struck down the subsidies, is still due to be heard en banc, though this decision by the Supreme Court renders that moot.

I’ve tried to game this out, proceeding from the assumption that the subsidies are dead, and I’m confused by where that would lead.

For one thing, the regulatory apparatus of the ACA would remain intact. The changes to the insurance marketplace that the ACA brought about would still exist. However, in thirty-odd states, where the state legislatures declined to set up their own state exchanges, like Pennsylvania where I live, millions of people would be required to buy health insurance that they might not be able to afford or pay a tax in lieu of insurance.

The question is, what happens then?

If consumers start dropping out of the market en masse, we could see the long foreseen insurance company death spiral in places like the deep south and the Plains where the states haven’t established exchanges. I’d be very curious what would be happening in insurance company boardrooms for the first twenty-four hours after a ruling that struck down the subsidies. The real question, I think, is what they start lobbying for legislatively. Do they want to keep the customers that the ACA promised them? Or do they want a rollback to a pre-ACA world with fewer customers?

At the same time, this could move some state legislatures to establish their own exchanges, though perhaps unwillingly. What’s especially interesting is that a situation where state exchanges have subsidies while federal exchanges do not would be a reverse of the usual federal-to-state money transfer; usually, it’s Democratic states subsidizing Republican states, but here we would see the reverse, with tax dollars flowing out of the south and the Plains and into the northeast and the West Coast. Politicians in the states without exchanges, if they recognized this, would probably be incensed by it.

For the GOP, the genius of this lawsuit is that it would damage the ACA without leaving their fingerprints on the body. They assume that Obama would have to agree to a repeal of the law if thirty states’ populations were forced to buy unaffordable health insurance. They could argue that if Obama didn’t sign repeal legislation that he’s failing the American people. However, Obama could just as easily argue that it will take a two line bill to clarify that sentence of the ACA, he’s sent text to Democrats in the House and Senate to introduce, and it’s the GOP that’s standing in the way of the American people by not moving on it. Obama hasn’t rolled over on the Affordable Care Act thus far; I don’t see that changing before January 2017, and if a Democrat is elected in 2016, that won’t change before 2021.

This one puzzles me. Because I don’t see quite where this one goes.

Fundraising and John Boehner’s Lawsuit

Today I have received more political fundraising e-mails than I can count. And, with one exception, they’ve all centered on the House GOP’s vote to sue President Obama.

The Atlantic had a piece up today about the 21 fundraising emails the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sent out over the weekend about the lawsuit and its potential for impeachment.

I received all of those e-mails. I wasn’t happy about receiving them. The first few were fine, but then they became excessively cloying. Pleading and begging. Overly familiar.

I’m going to take a look at two I’ve received today. The first one I’m going to look at is the most recent one. It’s ostensibly from Nancy Pelosi. Subject line: “new low (Boehner)”

This is a new low.

Republicans just went on the House floor and voted to authorize Boehner’s lawsuit against President Obama.

The truth is: House Republicans are using this lawsuit to slander the President. Boehner’s House Republicans accused President Obama of some pretty nasty things tonight.

They’re claiming he’s breaking the law.

They’re claiming he’s deliberately exceeding his constitutional authority.

They’re EVEN claiming he’s acting against the wishes of the Founding Fathers.

I’m sick of the slanderous accusations against President Obama. I’m tired of Boehner using taxpayer dollars to fund his vendetta against President Obama. We need to fight back.

I would quibble with one or two things here. The “acting against the wishes of the Founding Fathers” is new to me; I’ve not heard that one before. “Slander[ing] the President,” though, isn’t anything new; they’ve accused Obama of everything, from having a fake birth certificate and being a non-citizen to being a secret Muslim. The GOP and their talking heads have thrown crud at President Obama for six years. This is nothing new.

The e-mail from Sara Alexander, the RNC’s Chief Operating Officer, is a little different, as you might expect. Subject line: “IT PASSED: House Republicans are suing Obama”

Moments ago, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation allowing House Republicans to sue President Obama for his unconstitutional executive overreach.

This is a HUGE STEP in stopping President Obama.

Speaker Boehner and House Republicans are suing this Imperial President for expanding his power and control beyond the constitutional and legal limits.

President Obama has failed to uphold the crux of his constitutional duty – to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed” – and he must be held accountable.

Sara, I have a very important question for you. Please think carefully before you answer it.

Define “held accountable.”

Let’s suppose, for a moment, that the House GOP’s lawsuit prevails in court. There are reasons to think that it won’t — standing is a big issue and has a good chance of kicking the lawsuit entirely — but let’s suppose that it does.

What sanctions do you expect? And, how do expect those sanctions to be enforced?

There was a lawsuit over Indian rights during Andrew Jackson’s presidency. Jackson, as the Trail of Tears would suggest, was not particularly interested in the Native American population. The case reached the Supreme Court, Chief Justice John Marshall handed down a decision Jackson didn’t care for, and Jackson’s response was, “John Marshall has rendered his decision, now let him enforce it.”

If the House prevails at some point in the next two and a half years, we would have the same situation. Boehner would have his decision; how would he enforce it?

If the House GOP really and truly believes that the president is a tyrant who is operating outside Constitutional norms, a lawsuit is not the remedy. The Constitution is clear — impeachment is the remedy for high crimes and misdemeanors. And, as we found out in 1973 and 1998, “high crimes and misdemeanors” mean whatever a majority of the House of Representatives say they mean.

There are good and sound reasons why the GOP is playing down the impeachment talk they’ve encouraged the last six years and blame-shifting it over to the Democrats; even if the GOP takes the Senate in November, the GOP would never get 67 votes in the Senate for conviction and removal.

But impeachment would not be as transparent a stunt as this lawsuit. The lawsuit is all about giving the appearance to the base of doing something to stand up to Obama without actually anything productive, not unlike the patented Marvel Comics’ “appearance of change” where major characters go through major, traumatic events and/or changes, only to have them revert back to the iconic status quo within two years. Comic book fans, at least, are aware enough of the cynicism to see through it; the politicians and the media that enable them, though, treat the cynicism as though it’s deathly serious.

The GOP is making a stupid move. The Democrats don’t need to do anything; when your opponent is making a stupid move and beating himself up, don’t stop him.

I gave neither the DCCC nor the RNC money. This reason — the lawsuit and potential impeachment — don’t warrant it for the Democrats. And for the Republicans? I’d like to see them stand for something.

Oh, and as I wrote this, I got an e-mail purportedly from Joe Biden. He’s right when he writes: “It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. And you know what, Allyn? I can guarantee you that these guys are not done attacking this President.”

Still not a reason to give money.

The Coming Debt Ceiling Debacle

There’s a storm brewing in Washington these days. Funding for the government expires on Monday, and two weeks after that the nation’s debt ceiling needs to be raised. Republicans are willing to fund the government if the Affordable Care Act is defunded and/or repealed. Democrats aren’t about to eliminate the signature achievement of President Obama’s first term. The House passed a short-term continuing resolution that defunded the ACA, the Senate stripped out the defunding and punted the bill back to the House (after twenty-one hours of grandstanding from Ted Cruz, the junior Senator from Texas), and the ball is now back in John Boehner’s court.

There could easily be a government shutdown next week — a contingent of House Republicans are unwilling to vote for a CR that funds the ACA, Boehner is unwilling to pass a “clean” CR with Democratic votes because that would weaken his Speakership. Good times.

In the middle of last week, the Wall Street Journal asked the question, “Why do House Republicans do the things they do?” White House advisor Dan Pfeiffer called the House Republicans “people with a bomb strapped to their chest.” Michael Tomasky called them “arsonists.” I think of the phrase from The Dark Knight: “Some people just want to watch the world burn.”

The House GOP is well aware of their reputation. Some seem to revel in it. And some are worried. From that WSJ article, we have this quote from Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma: “It just takes one mistake. We could turn ourselves into a minority for generations.” They know they’re flirting with disaster.

Well, they’re on the cusp of that. If there’s a government shutdown next week, because no one is sure at this point what Boehner is going to do, that won’t be too terrible. It will be bad, but it’s something that can be recovered from. A clean bill gets passed quickly. The markets have only a momentarily freak-out. The frightening event comes two weeks later — the debt ceiling.

Obama’s position is simple: raise the debt ceiling.

The House GOP’s position is more complex: Implement the Mitt Romney/Paul Ryan agenda, and we’ll raise the debt ceiling.

In a frightening way, what the House GOP wants makes sense — they want an apocalyptic showdown with a president they view as dangerous and illegitimate. John Boehner, who I will give some credit, has managed to keep them from burning the world down by passing necessary bills and postponing the inevitable confrontation. However, that confrontation is at hand. and a shutdown over the continuing resolution won’t placate them. Since the ACA won’t be defunded with the continuing resolution, the next battleground (or, in the GOP’s parlance, “leverage point”) is the debt ceiling. Because they have to pass a bill to raise the debt ceiling, they want something in exchange. They want what they didn’t win at the ballot box last year, the Romney/Ryan platform. The Atlantic calls their debt ceiling demands “insane.” They’re trying to extort from the president what the American people resoundingly rejected.

It’s almost like the 2012 election didn’t happen. (Hell, Jim DeMint of the Heritage Foundation made that argument the other day. He said 2012 didn’t count because Mitt Romney was the wrong candidate to challenge the PPACA because of his experience in Massachusetts.)

Sam Tanenhaus argued in The New Republic six months ago that today’s Republican Party has the party of John C. Calhoun. Yesterday, The Atlantic‘s James Fallows also cited Calhoun: “there is no post-Civil War precedent for what the House GOP is doing now. It is radical, and dangerous for the economy and our process of government, and its departure from past political disagreements can’t be buffed away or ignored.” (Italics in original.) The Republicans are, Fallows states plainly, “demanding the reversal of major legislation as a condition for routine government operations.” Calhoun, not Abraham Lincoln, is the spiritual godfather of today’s Republican Party.

Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine has argued persuasively that the fate of the American Constitutional system is the balance. Obama can’t negotiate over the debt ceiling and agree to give the House GOP what they want, otherwise it fatally wounds the presidency (his and future presidents):

If Obama agrees to trade policy concessions for a debt-ceiling hike, he will permanently enshrine debt-ceiling hostage dramas in the practical functioning of American government. That means not only will unscrupulous opposition parties be able to wring concessions from himself and future presidents, but eventually a negotiating snag will trigger a real default.

It would fundamentally change the country’s governing norms, permanently placing new and destructive power in the hands of Congress.

Not only are the Republicans’ absurdly grandiose debt-ceiling demands unacceptable — they’re currently calling for Obama to essentially accede to the entire Republican fiscal and regulatory agenda in addition to destroying his health-care law — but any demands are unacceptable.

The incentive structure for Obama is therefore such that a debt-ceiling breach, while terrible, is better than trading something to prevent one. But it’s not clear if Republicans actually don’t understand Obama’s incentive structure or are merely pretending not to understand it. Terrible though it may be, a default may actually be necessary to preserve the constitutional structure of American government and the rest of Obama’s presidency.

Chait followed up yesterday on this, arguing essentially that the GOP simply doesn’t understand that Obama will let them shoot the hostage. Obama doesn’t want them to, obviously, because of the financial damage that will ensue, but he doesn’t have a choice.

Obama’s incentive structure is simple, then: Allowing Republicans to default on the debt now is better than trading something that allows them to threaten it later. His best option is to refuse to negotiate the debt ceiling and have the House raise it before October 17. His next best option is to refuse to negotiate the debt ceiling, allow default, and never have to go through it again. Bargaining merely postpones, and worsens, the next default crisis. No negotiated debt-ceiling price is small enough to be acceptable. There is therefore no circumstance under which bargaining for a debt-ceiling hike makes sense, even if the alternative is certain default.

That is a frightening reality, made all the more frightening by two additional factors. The first is that Republicans don’t believe Obama’s insistence that he won’t negotiate. Obama can claim he won’t negotiate, but he would have an incentive to lie about this, and nobody other than Obama can really know for sure. (I believe him, but I wouldn’t bet my life on it.) And one of the things Republicans truly believe about Obama — they say it constantly in private — is that they can make him fold.

As the debt-ceiling deadline ticks toward midnight, Obama ought to be able to make his determination clear enough that House Republican leaders understand their only choices are to raise the debt ceiling or breach it. Default would risk not only economic calamity but the potential of an electoral one for the otherwise unassailable Republican majority. But history is replete with disastrous miscalculations. They’re often made by weak, short-sighted leaders facing pressure to demonstrate toughness from internal opponents. That is to say, Boehner is exactly the kind of leader who would blunder into a calamity like a debt default.

That’s where we are. It’s not a pretty place to be.

I’m not sure who can talk the GOP down off the ledge. Two years ago I thought the financial markets and the GOP’s financial masters on Wall Street would be able to, but even they couldn’t get through to the GOP. (Hell, the GOP blames Obama for the credit downgrade, ignoring how their brinksmanship brought it about in the first place.)

I’d write my representative and beg him to pass a clean debt ceiling bill, but he’s useless. He went on Hardball on Thursday and embarrassed himself.

The Republican Party isn’t just risking becoming a minority party with these shenanigans. They are flirting with an economic armageddon with very bad and ultimately unpredictable results.

Scary days ahead. Scary days indeed.