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Inflexible GOP should listen to Reagan on debt

By John Avlon, CNN Contributor
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • John Avlon says GOP in civil war over debt debate, with America the casualty
  • Avlon: Ronald Reagan was stern when Congress played politics with debt ceiling in 1987
  • Avlon says hyper-partisanship has caused GOP to sacrifice national interests
  • Avlon: In dysfunctional debate, we should unify around the Gipper's common-sense counsel

Editor's note: John Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He is the author of "Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America."

(CNN) -- As the debt-ceiling deadline ticks closer, conservatives in Congress are fighting among themselves. The civil war is between responsible Republicans and extreme ideologues. The question is whether the collateral damage will include the American economy.

House Speaker John Boehner abruptly abandoned his attempt to negotiate a "grand bargain" on the deficit and the debt with President Barack Obama because of a lack of support among tea party members, and now he is struggling to keep support for his Plan B intact in the face of an open rebellion.

A senior staff member of the Republican Study Committee was found to have been e-mailing conservative activist groups, encouraging them to attack Boehner's late-inning option as being insufficiently radical. The all-or-nothing impulse makes enemies even of allies.

In the face of this political crisis masquerading as a fiscal crisis, it seems that no one can unite the Republican Party, let alone the nation. If far-right conservatives can't listen to reason, maybe they will listen to Ronald Reagan.

Because Reagan had stern words for Congress when it tried to play political games with the debt ceiling in 1987. They still ring true today.

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I was at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, on Thursday to hear my wife, Margaret Hoover, speak in support of her new book, and I inquired about a Reagan quote that Obama referenced in his Monday night prime-time speech. Reagan offered this particular dose of common sense on September 26, 1987, in a national radio address. Here is the key part of the text:

"Unfortunately, Congress consistently brings the government to the edge of default before facing its responsibility. This brinkmanship threatens the holders of government bonds and those who rely on Social Security and veterans benefits. Interest markets would skyrocket. Instability would occur in financial markets and the federal deficit would soar.

"The United States has a special responsibility to itself and the world to meet its obligations. It means we have a well-earned reputation for reliability and credibility -- two things that set us apart in much of the world."

Congressional Republicans should read that paragraph out loud twice before going to vote on the debt ceiling in the next few days. It is essentially the same argument Obama has been making. But in our current hyper-partisan environment reason doesn't resonate across party lines. Instead, there is too often an overheated impulse to oppose Obama at any cost. Hearing the same argument from the Gipper might inspire a needed sense of perspective.

That loss of perspective is a key symptom of hyper-partisanship. It causes people to forget that the national interest comes before partisan interests. This affliction is epidemic at the moment. Whole segments of the GOP 2012 presidential field are debt-ceiling deniers, arguing that defaulting on our debt doesn't really matter.

Tim Pawlenty has said that he "hopes and prays" that the debt ceiling isn't lifted. Ron Paul made this approach the cornerstone of his first ads. Rep. Michele Bachmann says, nonsensically, that she doesn't believe the nation will default on August 2 but she'll vote against raising the debt ceiling anyway.

There are believed to be dozens of votes in the House Republican caucus who will also oppose any raising of the debt ceiling. They are like a person who refuses to pay a credit card bill after a spending spree and calls it a stand for fiscal responsibility.

The most insidious line of argument is one that encourages default for supposed political advantage.

This sentiment is most often articulated behind closed doors, but Donald Trump brought it out into the open, telling Fox News on Monday: "Unless Republicans get 100% of what they want -- and that may include getting rid of 'Obamacare,' which is a total disaster -- they should not make a deal other than a minor extension which would take you before the elections which would ensure that Obama doesn't get elected, which would be a great thing. ... The Republicans have the leverage. I don't care about polls. When it comes time to default, they're not going to remember any of the Republicans' names. They are going to remember in history books one name, and that's Obama."

What can you say about such a breathtakingly cynical and nihilistic approach to politics, other than it is the exact opposite of John McCain's 2008 campaign slogan, "Country First."

Responsible Republicans are beginning to understand that the conservative populist fires they have stoked to win elections can be the enemy of effective governance. Fiscal responsibility and fiscal conservatism have been effectively delinked. Even a conservative icon such as Reagan would not pass the litmus tests imposed today. After all, Reagan raised the debt ceiling successfully 17 times and increased the deficit during his term in office, a byproduct of his successful strategy to spend the Soviet Union into oblivion.

Most significantly, he closed dozens of tax loopholes as a means of lowering tax rates while still raising revenues -- the same approach that was labeled an unacceptable tax hike by anti-tax absolutists and killed the prospects for a grand bargain with Obama and Boehner.

Reagan governed effectively with a Congress controlled by Democrats. There were principled differences and heated debates, but in the end, the two sides were able to reason together and negotiate in good faith, understanding that all or nothing is not a practical option between fellow countrymen. By demonizing people we disagree with -- especially the president of the United States -- we demean our democracy.

We are playing a dangerous game right now. Republicans do not know what will happen in their own conference, let alone what plan might pass both the House and Senate. And even if we avoid default, this Kabuki theater could have the consequence of downgrading our credit rating. The alleged purpose of this fight has been essentially forgotten -- tax and entitlement reforms are not on the table right now. This will eventually be seen as a lost opportunity. We are just fighting to avoid default.

The dysfunctional debt-ceiling debate needs a dose of common sense before it is too late. Perhaps the unifying figure of Reagan will provide a reinforcement of reason. It's sad and stupid to have to say, but conservatives might accept an argument made by the Gipper, even as they ignore the same appeal made by the current president of the United States.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.