Boy, that’s some historic week we just had.
The United States Congress narrowly averted financial calamity – a crisis which was completely self-inflicted – by refusing to raise the nation’s debt ceiling until the last instant, as opposed to the previous 72 times it has been lifted since March 1962 (17 times under Ronald Reagan, who transformed the U.S. from the world’s biggest creditor nation to its largest debtor, and ten times since 2001). “Tea Partyers” among House Republicans bucked their own leadership to paralyze the legislative branch, even though Republican demands had been met and exceeded by the President and the Democratic leadership weeks before, and reducing or eliminating government programs at this point in the economic cycle can only make the deficit worse, not better. In plain language, if more people lose their jobs, they cannot pay taxes, or even sustain their spending into the economy, and the red ink flows even stronger. Companies are not sitting on record piles of cash (most of it earned overseas) because they’re “concerned” about “indecision” or “regulations,” though that’s some mighty purdy-soundin’ spin. They’re not hiring or expanding because there’s no demand; they would sell every last wingnut in the factory if only they could. If the mall you already have isn’t full, you’re certainly not going to build a new one. Fortunately, almost no spending cuts take place in 2011 or 2012, and the actual “savings” to the 2012 budget – the only one over which this Congress has any control – is about $21 billion of a $3.7 trillion pie. So this “deal” is actually so toothless that it’ll save us from itself for a blessed little while.
In response to the grim legislative impasse, Standard & Poor’s made history by downgrading U.S. debt for the first time ever, putting upward pressure on interest rates at the worst possible moment. At least S&P raters were actually at their desks, unlike during the global financial crisis that, along with shortsighted tax cuts and foolish wars, helped get us into this mess. “Tea Partyers” who, incredibly, wished to leave the debt ceiling unchanged and thus announce to our creditors that the United States no longer considers it necessary to pay debts it has already incurred, are becoming the very obstructionists I wrote about nearly a year ago, and they’re proud of it. Rep. Mike Doyle said the Tea Partyers “acted like terrorists” by using the full faith and credit of the U.S. as a bargaining tool. I think that was a little harsh. What they actually acted like was a bunch of movie gangsters. Nice global reputation you got there, pal. Be a real shame if something happened to it. Not terrorists, extortionists. And guess what: it worked! As Bloomberg Businessweek put it, “Having successfully held the economy hostage to achieve their aims, House Republicans established a template for the aggrieved, reckless, and intractable partisans of any future Congress…The resulting accord is almost wholly uninformed by the nation’s actual economy, demographic trends, or social reality.” Brendan Greeley writes in the same magazine that “the Republicans aren’t playing a game called ‘fix the budget deficit.’ They’re necessarily playing one called ‘defeat Barack Obama.’” How else do you explain Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s helpful last-minute suggestion to kick the debt-ceiling can down the road a few months so we can all do this again in an election year? He himself offers quite the candid explanation: “We want Obama to own this economy.” Remember, preventing the President’s re-election was Leader McConnell’s avowed “number one priority.” The best interests of the country? That’s for chumps and mama’s-boy Democrats. According to Time’s Fareed Zakaria, Republicans filibustered about 80% of major legislation in 2009, and hundreds of senior Administration positions are still awaiting Senate confirmation. Frustrated candidates have withdrawn in disgust, like Nobel economics laureate Peter Diamond of MIT, who was “unqualified” according to the learned Pub geniuses of the Senate Banking Committee. At Treasury, more than a dozen senior positions – almost all its top management – remain vacant due to Pub opposition. Keep in mind, just one Senator can halt pretty much any business he doesn’t like (in other words, a patriot representing a tiny fraction of the population can work his will over everybody else, but only in a negative way), and in the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body, 59 to 41 is actually a losing vote. Going on recess without funding the FAA is not in our country’s best interest, but still: it frickin happened.
Michele Bachmann and her Johns – Wayne Gacy and Quincy Adams – aside (one expects her to know better, and one is continually disappointed), some of these Partyers are well-meaning but misdirected folks who profess genuine unconcern at the prospect of a U.S. default. “I balance my household books every month, why can’t the government?” Um, no, not if you have a mortgage or an auto or student loan…but I digress. In fairness, if you depended on Fox News for analysis, you too might have trouble with some complex issues. Cleverly, Fox honch Roger Ailes even leaves the impression of general agreement by directing his various hosts to repeat a given talking point all day, so in your innocence you probably couldn’t be blamed for taking such propaganda, coming from so many “different” “sources,” as received wisdom. But there are about eighty self-proclaimed Partyers in the House right now. All of them ran as, and now caucus with, Pubs. They claim to be uninterested in re-election; that’s what “gives us the power” to say no. We’ll see how many decide not to run in 2012: I predict you will frequently hear, “I yearn to get back to my cabbage farm, but the godless socialists will take over if patriots like me abandon the fight.” They are not interested in nuance; it’s boring. Compromise? Even talking to the other side borders on treason. As The Economist wrote, President Obama “lost because he was not willing to be as reckless as the Republicans…Republicans in effect pointed a pistol at the economy and threatened to pull the trigger if they were denied. An alarming number of them sounded crazy enough to carry out this threat. Faced with the danger of a default, Mr. Obama and his party had little choice but to surrender.” Not just thugs, dude; crazy thugs. Leave the economy. Take the cannolis.
How did we get here? The National Journal recently revealed another historical fact: for the first time in the 30 years it’s been tracking these things, the leftmost Republican in the current House is voting more conservatively than the rightmost Democrat. The circles in the Venn diagram do not intersect: not by a hair, not an atom. There are no more moderates left. This is the result of (a) partisan gerrymandering on both sides (yet currently tipped toward Pubs — they’ve been in the driver’s seat for the last two censuses, and even longer when you consider their steadfast opposition to scientific sampling, which would yield a far cheaper [government waste alert!] and more accurate count than the current door-to-door method, which favors guess who); (b) Partying radicals forcing out more moderate legislators in Pub primaries (e.g., Delaware’s Mike Castle, a fine man who lost in the 2010 primary to a batty Partyer who had to defend herself against her own previous comments re witchcraft) (also e.g., and very chilling to any thoughtful conservative who may still remain huddling in the rubble, Utah’s three-term incumbent Senatorial right-wing firebrand Bob Bennett, who was astonishingly zapped in the 2010 primary because he violated the party line in 2006 on a silly Constitutional amendment to ban flag burning); and (c) retirement, with the departing legislator — on both left and right sides of the aisle — almost always sporting a not-so-thin veil of contempt for the system of constant money-grubbing that he’s escaping. Compromise comes from the middle, and the middle is gone. Speaker Boehner suddenly discovered that he had no room to maneuver toward the center — and this, kids, is why the poor guy can’t stop smoking.
Think any common ground is still here? Leader McConnell describes the recent debacle exactly like Bloomberg Businessweek, as “a new template.” He says, “in the future, any president…when they request us to raise the debt ceiling, it will not be clean any more…. [emphasis mine] we will go through the process again and see what we can continue to achieve.” I submit this is nothing more than the posturing of a minority leader. Today’s Pubs are prizefighters, not statesmen; negotiation and compromise — even, saddest of all, principle — are for wimps. This is the salient fact that the President failed to understand all along. They have learned how to rule, or at least to obstruct, from the minority, and they’re reckless enough to set the national interest aside while they do it. (In that notorious 2009-2010 Congress, all they ever did was say no.) What would happen if we returned all three branches of government to them, instead of the 1½ they have now? Here’s a thought experiment: can you imagine a President Eric Cantor subjecting himself to the kind of treatment we have just witnessed? Not a chance. Here would be his statement: “I am hereby invoking Section 4 of the 14th Amendment, which requires me to ensure that the validity of U.S. public debt may not be questioned. I’ll see you in court – which, by the way, is still packed with Bush appointees – but the debt ceiling is raised, bitches. Oh, and you’re not invited to the cast party at Lloyd Blankfein’s. Have a nice day.”
LATER ON PUB DAY: For more, read this.