Is looking crazy a brilliant strategy?

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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If you’re curious why highly-intelligent conservatives are supporting seemingly irrational positions, over at First Things, James R. Rogers explains why seeming crazy might just be a feature, not a bug.

For example, Rogers, a department head and associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University,believes that it would be “irrational” to vote against raising the debt ceiling. After all, it could cause a default.

But, he argues, this is a trap.

Since everyone knows it would be irrational not to raise the debt ceiling, this knowledge “affects how the earlier stages of the game are played.” In other words, since nobody rational will vote against raising the debt ceiling, this incentivizes spending money in the earlier stages of the game.

Rogers concludes that one “rational” way fix this “is to elect politicians who would be crazy enough to take the irrational action in the last stage of the game of not increasing the debt ceiling.”

Okay. First, I’m curious why the assumption is that the problem can only be resolved at the end of the “game.” Refusing to raise the debt ceiling is like shutting the barn door after the horse is out. Why can’t we elect conservatives who will hold the line on spending before we spend it, rather than forcing them into this game of brinkmanship?

In any event, I would concur that, yes — by the time we get around to having to raise the debt ceiling, the prospects of defaulting obviously do give small-government conservatives little leverage.

Here’s where it gets interesting. “Like the 1960s doctrine of mutually-assured destruction,” Rogers continues, “deterrence works only to the extent that one believes that the other side, irrationally, will push the button after you’ve pushed the button.”

I’m not sure comparing this to a nuclear war is helpful, but let’s go with it.

“So, sure, GOP voters are electing crazy, non-pragmatic, irrational legislators,” he continues. “But they’re doing so in order to change the game and, rationally, get the smaller government so many of them sincerely, and reasonably, want.”

In other words, there is a method to the madness. (Apparently, all those base voters are really voting strategically?)

The assumption here (I hope) is that conservative politicians are merely feigning insanity — that they won’t actually push the button (to use his nuclear metaphor), that this is merely a strategy.

But is it? The conundrum is that, for this gambit to work, Republicans really have to sell it. I mean, they have to convince all of us — political observers, Democratic colleagues, Kook-Aid-drinking supporters — and even presumably, the voters! — that they will act irrationally. They will go off the cliff. They will push the button.

This is sort of like when Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) tells Nuke LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) to intentionally throw at the bull mascot in Bull Durham. The message is simple: “I don’t know where it’s gonna go. Swear to God.”

So far, it seems to be working. At least, they have me fooled.

Matt K. Lewis