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GOP holding U.S. economy hostage on debt

By David Rothkopf, Special to CNN
January 15, 2013 -- Updated 1638 GMT (0038 HKT)
President Obama speaks at Monday's news conference, where he warned against playing politics with the debt ceiling.
President Obama speaks at Monday's news conference, where he warned against playing politics with the debt ceiling.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Rothkopf: Obama challenged congressional GOP on debt ceiling
  • Rothkopf says Boehner and House GOP are bizarrely holding nation hostage
  • He says they must know it will hurt them, but continue; want budget cuts, but not to defense
  • Rothkopf: Playing politics with debt ceiling must be permanently out of bounds

Editor's note: David Rothkopf is CEO and editor-at-large of the FP Group, publishers of Foreign Policy magazine, and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

(CNN) -- President Obama threw down the gauntlet to congressional Republicans at his press conference on Monday. He will not, he asserted forcefully, allow the United States' credit rating be held hostage by hard-liners demanding budget cuts "or else..."

In short, the president's message was that he would not negotiate with fiscal terrorists.

He may have sounded adamant and unbending to some. But his position was hardly out of place. Speaker John Boehner and the Republicans in the House of Representatives are holding a gun to the head of the American economy and threatening to pull the trigger if the president doesn't bend to their will.

David Rothkopf
David Rothkopf

On some level, they must realize that allowing the United States to default on financial obligations that Congress itself racked up would not only sow chaos in the financial markets and reignite the recession, but also sign the death warrant for the modern Republican Party.

If the GOP -- already a party at odds with science, history, math, women, senior citizens, the poor and minority populations -- were to willfully and recklessly play politics with the full faith and credit of the United States, it would virtually ensure that by 2014, Democrats would retake the majority in the House of Representatives and expand their edge in the Senate. This could create a nightmare for many on the right: an Obama presidency in which Democrats could press through their full agenda with little resistance.

Even the most rabid Republican partisans must recognize that they are playing with fire.

News: Obama: We aren't a deadbeat nation

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They are overreaching in part to help redeem what was widely seen as a defeat for them in the tax deal that was struck at the beginning of the year -- the slight tax increase that was approved for the top 2% of the population. Of course, it is baffling why any among them would so focus on that small increase and neglect the fact that, with Obama's assistance, they managed to do what George W. Bush could not and make Bush's tax plan permanent. No matter, the posturing of Boehner & Co. is designed to make them appear resolute. Unfortunately, it only succeeds in making them look demented.

They say growth is the key to balancing the budget, but are pursuing the one policy most likely to derail it. They say they want to balance the budget to improve America's credit rating and international standing, but they seem willing to do more to damage either than any other Congress in memory. They say they want to force budget cuts but won't touch defense spending, the largest and most bloated area of discretionary spending in the budget.

Playing chicken with debt ceiling
Obama: No ransom for Republicans
Obama: Debt showdown would harm economy

They seem to assume that the president will offer some cuts and that they will be able to say their toughness won the day. They think the American people will believe their use of the debt ceiling as a cudgel was principled and perhaps even courageous. They will offer themselves up as protectors of the national economic well-being.

Opinion: Senate holds key to fixing Washington

This is a lot like a kidnapper expecting to be seen as a hero for releasing his captive. Both parties bear plenty of responsibility for getting America in the fiscal mess we are in today. Both will have to compromise to achieve real progress. Taxes will have to rise more. Defense will have to be cut. Entitlements will have to be sweepingly reformed. Real compromise and courage and principles will be required to a greater extent than either party has embraced or even publicly discussed.

But just because neither party has done all it should, that does not mean both are equally responsible for this bizarre and dangerous episode. As the president rightly asserted, and as reasonable people in either party must acknowledge, playing politics with the debt ceiling must be put permanently out of bounds.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Rothkopf.

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