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April 23, 2014

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The Captain Ahabs of the House

How many more rounds of this must America take?

How many more times must the economic neck of the nation have a knife pressed against it by Republicans demanding a ransom?

It seems the answer is at least once more — or twice.

Congress failed to avoid a government shutdown Monday, and Republicans already are gearing up to refuse to raise the debt limit — something that no Congress under any other president has ever refused to do.

But those presidents were not President Barack Obama, the bane of the far right’s existence, and those Congresses were not as infested with members who saw disruption as part of their duty.

As long as Obama is president, these folks will be flush with fever. Opposition to Obama is their raison d’être. America’s national interests are subordinate to their selfish ones.

The far right needs Obama to fail in order to fulfill their most preposterous prophecies. Obama must deal with a Republican-controlled House of Representatives that wants nothing more than his demise. There is nothing between the House and the president but a table of cease-fire and surrender at which no one will sit.

The House Republican caucus is full of Captain Ahabs, and Obama is their Moby Dick.

The president has already said he will not “negotiate on anything when it comes to the full faith and credit of the United States of America.”

Speaker John Boehner, having proved unable to lead the extreme elements of his caucus, has vowed to “continue to do everything we can to repeal the president’s failed health care law.”

Set aside the fact that the law cannot yet be deemed a failure because its provisions are still being phased in and those that have gone into effect seem to be working.

Focus instead on the fundamental disagreement here: The president is saying that he won’t negotiate over a stunt that would destroy our economy and the world’s, while Republicans are saying they are willing to risk it all in order to derail him.

This is not responsible. This is not principled. This is not high-minded. This is personal and dangerous. This is an abuse of instruments of power in pursuit of reprisal.

The subtext to this struggle is most disturbing: Is the drive to destroy the legacy of one president worth endangering the health of a nation? Can a by-any-means strategy be justified when it could cause a by-all-measures disaster?

Individual Republican members of the House — many in safe districts full of constituents who detest this president as much as they do — seem to have answered those questions in the affirmative.

And the House Republican caucus as a whole is banking on the public’s minimal understanding of budgetary minutiae to shield members from the blame for pushing us once more to the brink and possibly over it.

First, let’s understand something: National debt is not the same as household debt or credit card debt.

Being in debt and having that debt rise and paying down that debt has been a normal part of government in Western countries for centuries.

The United States has been in debt every year except one. Debt under Obama is not new.

And raising the debt ceiling is not about granting permission to spend more; it’s about borrowing to service the debt that the country has already incurred.

Congress has always raised the debt ceiling. Not doing so now would be catastrophic.

But that concept is sometimes hard for people to grasp. Around the last time the Republicans held the economy hostage over the raising of the debt ceiling, in 2011, the Pew Research Center found that only 18 percent of Americans said they understood very well the implications of not raising the limit, while 32 percent said they understood it fairly well and 47 percent said they did not have a good understanding of what it would mean.

So, with that in mind, it is no wonder recent polls have found that most Americans favor tying spending cuts to the raising of the debt limit, and more prefer not raising it — even if it leads to the country’s defaulting — to raising it without conditions.

Congressional Republicans are banking on that confusion. They just might use Americans’ concerns about the economy to destroy the economy. Only in America.

Charles Blow is a columnist for The New York Times.

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