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Republicans Tread Down a Dangerous Path

Holding hostage the debt ceiling — meaning the full faith and credit of the United States to pay obligations incurred in the past by this Congress and its predecessors —  threatening to take the risk of creating a depression or at least a serious recession unless all one’s demands are met, is simply reckless.

And to the list of reckless, add presidential candidates such as Tim Pawlenty, who is so intent on catering to his party’s extreme wing that he has encouraged a breach in the debt ceiling.

Just as reckless is the new “It’s not our problem” message House Republicans reflected in the comment by a once-grown-up veteran Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.).

“This is mostly debt we didn’t run up. ... These were mostly Democratic spending plans, and the idea that we would raise taxes to pay for programs we voted against? That’s a pretty hard sell.”

Tom, what planet have you been on for the past decade? We went from $5.6 trillion in surpluses in 2001 when Republicans had the presidency and the majority, to $14 trillion in debt now. Pew has estimated that four-fifths of the change comes from Bush administration policies — tax cuts, two wars, an unfunded Medicare prescription drug program — that you voted for.

For the most part, opinion leaders who could make a difference, spur political actors to take on more of a leadership role and counter irresponsible players — such as media personalities Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and others who are pointing toward a confrontation — have abdicated their responsibility and will bear a share of the blame if the worst case happens.

Of course, it might not. Perhaps all the posturing will end in some kind of patchwork deal to enable us to limp through November 2012. If Obama gets re-elected, we will have a new set of negotiations and confrontations. Although next time, with a major lever on Obama’s side — the expiration of the Bush tax cuts — that might be handled in a different fashion than it was this past December.

If Republicans recapture the White House, we will see whether their grand experiment — the Ryan budget on steroids — will pass public muster. For the good of the country and the political process, it would be far better to get the grand bargain now and settle back into the better kind of bickering, working out the specifics of how to cut programs and how to restructure the tax system.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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