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Boehner's red line gets a little blurry

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has already shut down the federal government, though he didn't have to and could have easily avoided the fiasco. With literally just two weeks remaining before a debt-ceiling increase is due, the next question is whether Boehner is prepared to shoot his other hostage.

Skeptics argue that the flailing House Speaker "doesn't want to default on the national debt" and has "said he's not willing to allow it." That's true -- in March, Boehner specifically vowed, "I'm not going to risk the full faith and credit of the federal government." And if the Speaker understood what he said, and intends to keep his word, there's nothing to worry about.

The problem is Boehner also said the exact opposite in August, vowing to start hurting Americans on purpose unless Democrats agreed to Republican demands. It hasn't been clear which Speaker we should listen to -- the responsible one who won't deliberately crash the economy, or the irresponsible one who takes orders from right-wing extremists in his caucus.

The New York Timesreports today that Boehner will probably do the right thing.

With a budget deal still elusive and a deadline approaching on raising the debt ceiling, Speaker John A. Boehner has told colleagues that he is determined to prevent a federal default and is willing to pass a measure through a combination of Republican and Democratic votes, according to multiple House Republicans.

One lawmaker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Mr. Boehner had indicated he would be willing to violate the so-called Hastert Rule if necessary to pass a debt-limit increase.

OK, great. So we can sleep a little better? Boehner won't hold the debt-ceiling hostage? The New York Times also reports today that Boehner won't do the right thing.

"The speaker has always been clear that a default would be disastrous for our economy," Mr. Steel said. "He's also been clear that a 'clean' debt hike cannot pass the House. That's why the president and Senate Democrats should drop their 'no negotiations' stance, and work with us on a plan to raise the debt limit in a responsible way, with spending cuts and reforms to get our economy moving again and create jobs."

Oh, so we can't sleep a little better because Boehner will hold the debt-ceiling hostage.

This is getting a little confusing.

For those keeping score, Boehner started in late 2010 saying he would not cause a deliberate debt-ceiling crisis. In 2011, he reversed course, created a crisis, and did real damage to the nation on purpose. In early 2013, the Speaker reversed course again, saying a debt-ceiling breach simply cannot happen. And then today, Boehner's spokesperson said the polar opposite, saying Democrats will have to satisfy Republican demands. Indeed, the Speaker's office specifically said a ransom-free debt-ceiling bill -- a measure Boehner himself has supported many times throughout his lengthy congressional career -- "cannot pass the House."

In other words, since Boehner was slated to become the nation's most powerful lawmaker, he's been against, then for, then against, then for holding the debt-ceiling hostage. The Speaker wasn't going to shoot the hostage, then he was, then wasn't, then he was again.

Let me use a metaphor Republicans are fond of: Boehner seems to be drawing so many red lines it's impossible to know what he really believes or whether anyone should find him the least bit credible.

The New York Times article offers a ray of hope, but it also adds cloud cover that casts an ominous shadow.

As Matt Yglesias summarized, "It is, in other words, the classic suicide hostage strategy: Do what I want or I'll detonate the bomb strapped to my chest. This has always been Boehner's position. Is it credible? I don't think so, but my confidence level is relatively low. Is it a morally acceptable way for a statesman to conduct himself? Absolutely not. Is it different from what he's been saying all along? Nope."

That part about whether this is a morally acceptable way for a statesman to conduct himself continues to strike me as a detail the vast majority of Americans simply aren't aware of. To my mind, this is should be one of the most striking political scandals in post-Civil War America: we have a major party threatening to do unimaginable harm to the United States unless their demands are met. The last group of Americans to do this wore gray and seceded.

It's the kind of unprecedented dynamic that would probably affect election outcomes in 2014 if the voting mainstream was aware of this and understood the gravity of the crisis.

Update: The White House's position, by the way, isn't nearly as hard to understand. President Obama will negotiate on the budget, on taxes, on entitlements, on immigration, on the farm bill, on fixing the Voting Rights Act, and on energy, but he won't negotiate with those threatening deliberate harm to the nation. Boehner's posture lacks any sense of morality or decency, but it's also not nearly this consistent.