Feature photo by Charles Dharapak – AP
In reality, the likelihood of a cataclysmic failure to reach an agreement on the debt ceiling is low. Too much is on the line for clearer heads not to prevail. This presumption mitigates not one iota of the embarrassment we should all feel at our government. The public good has been decidedly relegated to the backseat in the right wing of our legislature, and the Democrats are finding that a principled stand doesn’t easily fit the first time you try it on.
On Monday night, President Obama and Speaker of the House John Boehner addressed the nation to air their respective positions. Obama told us a scary bedtime story, and Boehner animatronically parodied rationality. They inspired these three thoughts on the whole episode.
Thought 1: Obama won the Old Man test. I always imagine, as I imagine Obama imagines, how his addresses will be received by the crucial Old Man demographic. I envision this perspective as a suspicious enmity toward Obama combined with a total loathing of Washington politics, rolled inside an old, cranky man. I was afraid that Obama would lose that audience to Boehner last night…until Boehner started talking. Forget that the content of his speech proved everything Obama claimed about intransigence and was full of outright lies. The Speaker’s tone and the gist of his message revealed a man so obviously full of crap, even he couldn’t believe what he was spewing. Disingenuity on that scale trumps whatever fear the Old Man has of Obama. Why does the Speaker seem so conflicted? Read on…
Thought 2: Two lessons from the financial crisis. Boehner has long had an unenviable job in having to deal with his party’s idiotic and emboldened fringe. None other than former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson claims in his memoirs that the chief villains of 2008’s TARP effort were hard-right congressional Republicans, impervious to logic and clinging to a worse-than-ignorant understanding of the economy. A profile emerges in these recollections of John Boehner as a zookeeper struggling to keep his constituents in line. To get the GOP votes needed to forestall crisis, Paulson recalls “trying to understand what Boehner was dealing with, [when] it dawned on me how difficult it was to reason with some people. The facts didn’t seem to matter to some in this group.” The motif of Boehner as a harried pragmatist unable to control his party’s lunacy has only increased with the emergence of the Tea Party. In the current debt negotiations, Boehner has twice struck deals with Obama that he ended up having to oppose because he couldn’t command his own caucus’s margins.
The other lesson from 2008 is that TARP, massively unpopular, improvised, and necessary, passed Congress on the virtue of a Bush White House that refused to ask permission for anything. Although the same mentality led to an unprecedented disintegration of checks and balances, no one can deny that Bush usually got what he wanted. To paraphrase The Godfather, Obama would have made a great peacetime consigliere, but this is war, and he needs a bit of the old Bushie chutzpah. He needs to get muscular with a simple, relentless narrative. Go nuts, Barack. We in your moderate base will let you know when it’s safe to be reasonable again. Unfortunately, Obama will live and die by his eternal naïveté.
Thought 3: Early surrender. All who crave statesmanship from our democracy should tremble at these numbers: as of now, President Obama’s reelection fund has raised $86 million, and the entire Republican field, $35 million. Moreover, the GOP has so far seemed oddly complacent to not yet see a dominant candidate, and meanwhile, their rhetoric has begun to increasingly focus on Obama’s reelection. If I didn’t know better, I’d bet that the Republicans have all but given up on 2012 and don’t give two shits about what happens to this country for the next five years; the worse, the better, in fact. That they are content letting the Democrats govern as long as there’s a big stinking mess to clean up has been evinced throughout this administration, and to no small degree in Mitch McConnell’s proposal to acknowledge the need to raise the debt ceiling without having to be a big boy about it. After all, what’s another Obama term if natural economic conditions are prophesying a second lost decade in a row? And anyway it’s not like there’s any great agenda they need to get to.
Troubled times, Gozamoans, troubled times. Few would have predicted, years ago, that the “pro-American” party would one day threaten the government with ritual suicide, but here we are. Personally, I’d like to hear someone raise the idea of Treasury announcing that it will unilaterally ignore the debt ceiling, daring someone to step up and prosecute it. The credit rating will be shot regardless. Whatever solution is reached, it will hopefully begin a period of national soul-searching, with the general political aesthetic veering more towards reason than bombast. A moderate can dream.