Friday, July 22, 2011

GOP's Debt Ceiling Platform: "Screw Everybody"

I've been watching the debt ceiling debates with growing horror. A few months back, John Dickerson, senior political correspondent for Slate Magazine, laid out the narrative he expected we'd see in this debate. First, he predicted, thing would look tense. Then, both sides would say they'd reached an impasse. Then the President would sit both sides down and cajole them to hammer out a deal. Then they'd storm out and say the two sides had never been further apart. They'd continue this act in public while the real negotiations went on in private in order to strengthen their hands, and at the last minute we'd have a deal.

That's the way it went down with the last budget negotiations, and it seemed like this political kabuki would play out that way this time, as well.

And it still could...

...except that something feels very different this time. Republicans were scared of taking the blame for a government shutdown. They were still haunted by the ghosts of Gingrich past. This time, it seems the only ghost that bothers them is the ghost of Obama future. Mitch McConnel, the Senate Minority Leader, said, "My first priority is the defeat of President Obama." He's the one who seems to be the most reasonable Republican at the table. John Boehner, Speaker of the House, looks like he's going to deal one minute, then looks like he's going to get neutered by his caucus, then turns around and says he won't budge. Eric Cantor, House Majority Whip, seems like he's either focused on causing a government default, or on taking John Boehner's job, and, luckily for him, those might come about simultaneously.

Now, I'm no economist, so I won't weigh in on just how bad it might be if we default. There's a range of predictions by the experts. When there is a range (as with Global Warming), skeptics say, "See, there's no perfect consensus, so let's not worry about it." These folks do not seem swayed by the fact that all the predictions are bad. I haven't come across a single economist who says, "Let's default. It'll be grand!"

Many Americans (a minority, but a sizable one), favor defaulting. They think this is some kind of principled stand. I'm staling a metaphor from Emily Bazelon, but this is not a fiscally responsible, fiscally conservative, or even moral principled stand. These people are not saying, "Let's spend less." We've gone out and run up the credit card bill already. Now, when the bill comes due and the only alternatives are to make that call and ask for a higher credit limit or to declare bankruptcy, they are saying, "Let's rip up that credit card bill! That'll show 'em!" I don't know what moral universe those people were raised in, but I was taught that not paying your bills was at the very least an irresponsible act, and not doing it when you have the money is outright immoral.

And we do have the money! No one can dispute that we are capable of paying these bills. The debt is growing, but that means we need to re-examine two things: Money in, and money out. That's a worthwhile conversation to have. But we do have the money. So refusing to pay our bills should not be an option.

A majority of Americans believe this. But that might not matter. In this game of chicken, it looks increasingly like Republicans are more than willing to accelerate into a head-on collision. The polite explanation for this is that they are too dogmatic. That might not seem polite, but that's what's been coming from conservative pundits. They point out that the GOP is too wedded to anti-tax dogma, too hemmed in by Grover Norquists' pledge, too beholden to the Tea Party wing, to consider revenue increases of any kind. That not coming from liberals like me. That's coming from conservatives like Ben Stein, David Brooks, and even Norquist himself, who went out of his way to try to give Republicans some cover by letting them know that closing tax loopholes wouldn't violate his pledge. Many conservatives (who aren't elected officials) are just as worried about the GOP politicians' intransigence as I am.

I took that as a good sign. See, I was under the cynical misconception that money ruled Washington. I thought, as we came down to the wire, wealthy GOP donors would get on the phone and say, "Look, Representative X, I appreciate that you're trying to protect that windfall I get from the Bush tax cuts. And I really love what the low corporate tax rate does for my company's bottom line. I have a good laugh every time you smile at the camera and call me a 'job creator' while I send American jobs overseas. You and I, we're on the same page. But Mr. Congressman, you have to understand, I have a lot of money in the stock market. A lot. Stocks and Bonds. I don't want to pay higher taxes any more than anybody else does, but I stand to lose a lot more from a government default that tanks the bond market, then the stock market, than I do from a tax increase. I didn't get to where I am without being able to do simple math. So say that you won't bend and screw as many poor people as you can, but, in the end, make sure the government doesn't default, or I won't be able to throw that fundraiser for you in September."

Every time a conservative pundit came out in favor of a deal, I assumed these calls were being made. And maybe they are. And maybe, after Obama and the Democrats give up on everything their party holds dear, that will happen.

But I'm starting to doubt it. Maybe the kabuki is really good. But we've entered into the danger zone. If a plan were to come out right now, it still might be too late to get it through both houses of Congress and onto the President's desk in time to calm the markets. Which means those wealthy donors aren't swaying their representatives fast enough. This makes me even more cynical. Because if money doesn't move Washington, what does? Oh yeah. Maybe it's the thing that can't be reported politely by conservative pundits.

I don't think anti-tax dogma tells the whole story. I don't think loyalty to the Tea Party does, either. I'm staring to think it's all about power. The Republicans were canny to recognize that they had the President over a barrel. He can't afford a default on his watch. Unemployment is the best chance their weak field of presidential candidates have. So they knew they could bleed all kinds of concessions before striking a deal. President Obama told Eric Cantor, "Don't call my bluff, Eric." Now, maybe this was simply the weakest, lamest thing a president has ever said. Maybe a man as smart and educated as President Obama doesn't know that you shouldn't announce when you're bluffing, but he is and he did and he'll get called. Social programs will be slashed. The economy will take a hit. The poor will suffer. The middle class will shrink. But the debt ceiling will be raised, the Republicans will call it a win, and Obama will live to fight another day.

Or maybe there is a bill he would veto. Maybe he's not really bluffing. And now, the only way for Republicans to find out is to push through some truly draconian bill like Cut, Cap, and Balance (the exact same Republicans who, under Bush, never cut, never capped, and never balanced) and see if he blinks. Maybe this isn't kabuki after all. Maybe this is theater of a more realist variety. Chekov once told Shchukin, "If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it must absolutely go off." Perhaps the rifle is not the default, but the bluff. Now it is loaded and hanging on the wall, and by August 2nd it must be discharged in someone's face.

And this is what scares me. Because if it's not about money, if it really is about power, then all the donors can make all the phone calls and it won't matter as long as GOP politicians adhere to McConnel's number one priority. Maybe they really do want to test Obama's willingness to be a one-term president by giving him an impossible choice: Either betray everything you believe in to get the ceiling raised, or let the country default. Maybe they've done the math as well, and have calculated that even if the country defaults, they will come out slightly ahead in the lose-lose. Sure, our economy will crater, and even their supporters will be angry with them, but as long as they'll be more angry with the President, it's worth it. If that's the case, if they are really willing to rip up the credit card bill and declare bankruptcy just to win the next election, we are all in big trouble.

Because it's not just a lose-lose for Obama. It's not just a lose-lose for the people counting on a Social Security check, or the people who depend on the programs Obama will be forced to cut to satisfy GOP demands. If Republican officials are willing to enter into a lose-lose that includes the wealthy, they're really saying "Screw America. We just want the White House and both houses of Congress." And those are the last people we should want there.

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