The background here is unfortunately familiar. Unless Congress raises the debt limit in the next few months, the federal government will go into default. The exact timetable is uncertain, but the most likely deadline will be late summer or early fall—probably at some point after Labor Day.
Republicans say they will only raise the debt limit in exchange for spending cuts and other policy demands; Democrats and President Obama say they will not negotiate the full faith and credit of the United States. That means one of three plausible scenarios will unfold: (1) Republicans will fold, raising the debt limit with no strings attached; (2) Democrats and the White House will fold, caving into GOP demands; or (3) the United States will default on its obligations. This is a terrible situation for the country, but it's also a bad political situation for Republicans—unless Democrats bail them out by choosing the second option.
Democrats have generally been pretty reliable when it comes to bailing out the GOP, so there's a pretty good chance that's exactly what will happen this time, but if they don't, Republicans are going to be in a bind. They'll be forced to choose between what the overwhelming majority of the country wants—raising the debt limit without going through yet another hostage crisis—and what their base wants, forcing a default to starve the government.
If Democrats and President Obama stand firm, Republicans will have nobody to blame but themselves for facing such a tough political predicament. Republicans weren't trapped into this by their political opponents—they made a deal with the far right, and now it's catching up to them. Democrats and the president have given them every chance in the world to save face and step back from the brink, but Republicans refuse to accept it.
Republicans probably figure all they need to do is keep on saying no to get what they want. Maybe they're right, but imagine for a moment if President Obama spends the late summer and early fall making it clear that the days of Republican debt limit extortion are over—that when he said he wouldn't give in to their hostage-taking, he meant it. Imagine if instead of begging them to accept his offer to cut Social Security, he framed the debate as a choice between meeting our obligations or tanking the economy, but under no circumstance allowing one political party to exert its will through threats of economic sabotage.
If that's what Obama does, all those pundits who are writing him off as irrelevant will find out just how wrong they are. Because if that's the approach he takes, those won't just be words—they'll be words backed up by a guy who not only has a veto pen, but also will have a party unified behind him. Republicans, by contrast, will be divided. Sure, their extremist base wants default, but there's still an awful lot of Republicans who don't want to go that route. Certainly, there's enough of them in Congress to get a majority in both chambers.
If President Obama really wants to break the back of right-wing extremism in Congress, that's the way to do it. Keep it simple: to default or to not default. Be confident that there is a majority coalition for governing sanely, because there is. In other words, don't be afraid of crazy Republicans, because between congressional Democrats and the handful of Republicans who still haven't gone over the edge, there's a workable majority to be had. It's there for the taking.