“Eric, don’t call my bluff.”

Those words suggest President Obama has had it up to here with the preening and posturing of Republican “negotiators” who won’t negotiate. Who could blame him?

Obama’s warning to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor came at the abrupt conclusion of Wednesday’s talks about the debt-ceiling crisis. The unamused president asked whether Ronald Reagan would have put up with such time-wasting nonsense, then uttered another memorable line: “I’ve reached my limit. This may bring my presidency down, but I will not yield on this.”

By “this” Obama meant Cantor’s insistent demand that the president accept a short-term hike in the debt ceiling, which would mean Congress would have to vote on yet another increase before next year’s election. Republicans know that Obama has ruled out this option. When Cantor raised it again Wednesday, and again, and again, the president lost his patience and went all commander in chief.

Obama’s frustration came as House Republicans refused to make a simple choice: Either they could give up their patently unfair and unreasonable demand that a deficit-reduction deal include absolutely no new revenue; or they could give up their equally absurd demand that any increase in the debt ceiling be accompanied, dollar for dollar, by budget cuts. That second option would necessarily mean only a modest hike in the ceiling.

Hence Obama’s display of presidential pique.

Let’s review why the little game Republicans are playing is so dangerous. If the debt ceiling is not raised by Aug. 2, the United States government faces default. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, a man not given to hyperbole, said Wednesday that the result would be a “huge financial calamity” — and the wound, he noted, would be entirely self-inflicted.

“Fairly soon after that date,” Bernanke said, “there would have to be significant cuts in Social Security, Medicare, military pay or some combination of those in order to avoid borrowing more money.”

Contrary to popular impression, going into default would not be just a matter of stiffing the autocrats in Beijing. Less than a third of the $14.3 trillion national debt is owed to foreigners — roughly 10 percent of the total to China. The biggest chunk, about 40 percent, is owed to U.S. individuals and institutions. Another 25 percent or so is owed to the Social Security trust fund, the U.S. Civil Service Retirement Fund and the U.S. Military Retirement Fund. In a sense we would primarily be stiffing American retirees, including veterans.

In a larger sense, though, it doesn’t matter whom we owe. Choking off the government’s ability to borrow would cause an unimaginable cash-flow crisis — at least $306 billion in bills for August against just $172 billion in revenue.

The most hopeful sign is that some Republicans, at least, understand that their refusal to give an inch, even as Democrats show a willingness to compromise, means the GOP will be blamed if Social Security checks don’t go out on time. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell warned that the party’s “brand” could be destroyed.

Indeed, a Quinnipiac University poll released Thursday bears McConnell out. The survey found that 48 percent of voters would blame the GOP in the event of default while 34 percent would hold the Obama administration responsible. Even 20 percent of Republicans would point the finger at their own party. The business community — both Wall Street and Main Street — is increasingly nervous.

What’s needed at this point is a way for House Republicans to climb down from the ledge on which they’ve marooned themselves. Obama has offered them a ladder — about $1.7 trillion in budget cuts with no offsetting revenue. All they have to do is approve a big enough increase in the debt ceiling to avoid having this same fight every few months. They refuse.

McConnell has offered a plan that would essentially let Obama raise the debt ceiling himself — taking the political heat — with no mandatory budget cuts. House Republicans say no.

It would be satisfying to stand back and watch Republicans take the plunge. This must have occurred to Obama as he told the smirking, eye-rolling Cantor to bring it on — but the president ended the meeting by telling congressional leaders he’d see them again Thursday.

Obama will continue to offer Republicans sensible ways to refrain from committing a shockingly unpatriotic act of economic vandalism. The unfortunate fact is that if they blow themselves up, they take the rest of us with them.

Eugene Robinson’s email address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.

© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

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