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Come Saturday Morning: When Smart People Say and Do Dumb Things

One of the big mistakes we all make, when judging the actions of others, is assuming that just because someone is generally considered to be intelligent means that this person is consistently intelligent at all times and in all matters. I do it, you do it, we all do it. Conversely, there is often the assumption that people who are often considered to be deluded — perhaps because they don’t worship the god or gods that others worship, or perhaps because they worship gods at all — are considered to be unable to function at all in society, when they very obviously can.

Here is one recent example showing how a bunch of people who were smart enough to get themselves political patrons capable of paying for their election campaigns weren’t very smart when it came to trying to plot against John Boehner:

On Wednesday night, an amused Republican staffer called me to report that Representatives Jim Jordan, Paul Gosar, Raul Labrador, and Steve Southerland were gathered at Bullfeathers, a Capitol Hill bar, openly plotting their coup. Not exactly the Roman Senate scheming to dispatch Caesar.


Any good coup depends on stealth. But on Thursday, an enterprising Politico photographer snapped Representative Tim Huelskamp sitting in open session reading from his iPad—not making this up—the entire roster of the plot against Boehner. Just so there was no mistaking that he was up to no good, the document was entitled “YOU WOULD BE FIRED IF THIS GOES OUT.” Not making that up either.Worse still, half the roster on Huelskamp’s iPad lost their nerve and bailed out. In the end, only nine Republicans broke ranks. Three cast votes for Cantor (who was visibly disgusted), two for recently ousted Representative Allen West, and one for a former U.S. comptroller general. Several of the plotters even voted for each other. Boehner was reelected Speaker.

Teabaggers: Great at winning primaries and sometimes even general elections, not so great at strategic thinking when it comes to certain situations.

The inability to think strategically on a consistent basis is not limited to Tea Party types. Many times it’s assumed that people are evilly plotting a particular end when they are just flailing about cluelessly, indulging in wishful thinking, or doing a host of other things without evil intent.

President Obama’s dealing away an end to the debt limit hostage scenario is a good example. Many people think he did it on purpose just so he could use the hostage crisis as an excuse to do what he’s wanted to do all along, and that’s to cut social spending, especially on programs like Social Security and Medicare, so he can please guys like Peter Peterson, Bob Rubin and Tim Geithner. While the circumstantial evidence for this is present, there is also another explanation — that he honestly thinks that this time around, the business community will pressure Republicans to cave on the debt ceiling and release all of their hostages unharmed:

President Obama’s decision to agree to a “fiscal cliff” deal that doesn’t address the debt ceiling was premised on the thinking that congressional Republicans will not be as successful at holding the economy hostage in the coming months as they were in the summer of 2011. For one thing, the administration believes the business community, and elite opinion more broadly, will be much more vocal than they were last time around in cautioning Republicans against debt-ceiling hijinx.

Is this a fair assumption to make? Well, there are already signs that business leaders will in fact be more outspoken (not difficult, given that they were virtually mute in 2011). “You don’t put the full faith and credit of the United States’ finances at risk,” David M. Cote, chairman of Honeywell and a Republican member of the 2010 Simpson-Bowles fiscal commission, told the New York Times yesterday. “The whole idea of using debt ceiling that way or saying ‘I’ll do this horrible thing to all of us unless you give in’ just doesn’t make any sense for anybody. It makes me very nervous. It’s not a smart way to run the country.”

The problem is that holding the debt ceiling hostage, something that was considered unthinkable and horrifying just two years ago, has now been “normalized”:

News reports on the threat of default cast it as a truly risky move: “The debt ceiling debate presents some congressional Republicans with an unhappy choice: A vote to raise the ceiling might expose them to primary challenges in the 2012 election, while a vote against it risks a default on U.S. debt obligations that could jeopardize the fragile economic recovery,” wrote Peter Nicholas of the Los Angeles Times that May. As the deadline neared, the tenor of the coverage grew even more ominous: “Georgia Republicans today will help decide whether Washington’s unprecedented debate over the federal debt ceiling should be pushed closer to the edge of — or even beyond — a potentially dangerous Tuesday deadline,” the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported on July 28. Even after the crisis had passed, official Washington looked on the Republican strategy with a mix of awe and horror — I was part of a major effort at the Washington Post to reconstruct the year-long tale of how the House GOP came to embrace this previously unthinkable approach.

Now? Political convention has successfully been defined down, and the Republicans’ stated intent to hold the debt-ceiling hostage again is being viewed as a matter of course.

Can President Obama counter this by impressing upon the public — and upon those who hold the GOP’s leashes — how dangerous it would be not to extend the debt ceiling? Will he even try? Or will he, as is suspected, give in to the Republicans on this and lose everything he allegedly won in the fiscal cliff fight?

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