Living in a post-policy world. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
Living in a post-policy world. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

The House Republican flailing on the debt limit appears to have taken a turn for the better this afternoon, with Robert Costa reporting a new plan to package the increase with a restoration of previously-cut military benefits.

Never mind, of course, that the original Republican position was that it was important to link debt limit increases to spending cuts, while this latest plan would apparently increase government spending. Hypocrisy isn’t especially interesting, and flip-flops rarely merit careful analysis.

What’s interesting here is how John Boehner finds himself in this mess. The answer is the post-policy Republican Party, in which public policy is either irrelevant to many gatekeepers of movement conservatism or a very low priority.

The problem is that the radicals are both insisting on using the debt limit for blackmail, and at the same time are indifferent to the ransom. As I said last year: “Republicans love the idea of extorting concessions in exchange for agreeing to a debt limit hike, and are determined to do it even when they don’t actually have any real policy demands. It’s just extortion for extortion’s sake.”

Granted, that was last year, when Republicans at least had had some relatively recent success with that racket and perhaps a realistic hope of winning something. Since then, however, they’ve crashed and burned twice on debt-ceiling demands, and absolutely no one expects significant extortion to work this time (see Jonathan Chait for a good analysis of the situation).

Boehner’s new plan is to ratchet all that way back. Instead of “forcing” Democrats to accept something they oppose, Boehner now is seeking to use something many Democrats want. That’s what a normal party does: use marginal legislative leverage to attempt to win marginal gains. Of course, Democrats could still hold out for a clean debt limit increase, or they could pile on their own matching demands (say, the minimum wage, or restoring recently-passed cuts in food stamps, or any other Democratic priority that’s popular). Normal parties would then negotiate their way to a win-win deal, because policy doesn't have to be zero-sum.

But that wouldn’t satisfy Republican demands for extortion for the sake of extortion. Nor, of course, would a clean debt limit increase (remember, all but a small group of radical Republicans admit an increase is needed). So Boehner’s latest gambit is certain to be seen as a sellout by at least the radicals, and also perhaps by some mainstream House conservatives who care more about avoiding an appearance of distance between themselves and "True Conservatives" than they do about achieving real policy gains.

Maybe mainstream conservatives in the House have finally wised up, and we’ll get something useful out of all this. Or maybe they’ll reject Boehner’s idea, and insist on a pointless ransom note vote (Repeal Obamacare! IRS! Benghazi!) destined to be ignored by the Senate, and subsequently ignored by the House when it passes a Senate-initiated clean debt limit increase with mostly Democratic votes. Either way, I think the conventional wisdom is correct that a debt limit increase will pass by the deadline. Until then, the process will provide clues to the condition of House Republicans.

To contact the writer of this article: Jbernstein62@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Francis Wilkinson at +1-212-617-8699 or fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net.