On the Debt-Ceiling Blues and “Putting Politics Aside” (Not)
July 26, 2011 16 Comments
Nice job Mr. President. Well-spoken. In many respects, a splendid piece of political rhetoric – especially in pitching to independents. Except for the self-contradictory part about “putting politics aside.”
Washington DC politicians (including the president) don’t “put politics aside.” Ever. Americans generally understand that politicians don’t ever put politics aside. Lawyers don’t put law aside. Lumberjacks don’t put lumber aside. It’s an empty phrase – “putting politics aside” – and excessive reliance upon it has diminishing returns, even with independents.
The president’s effectiveness in pitching to independents is a function of poll-tested political rhetoric. “Compromise.” “Oil companies.” “Corporate jets.” “Millionaires and billionaires.” “Balanced approach.” He may well have compelling campaign themes here – but this is the opposite of “putting politics aside.”
(Okay, an aside: corporate jets. Please. That tax break, called accelerated depreciation, was part of the stimulus package overwhelmingly supported, and still ardently defended, by Democrats, which was then re-authorized and signed by President Obama. Harping on tax breaks for “corporate jets” – when you voted for it before you voted for it – may be great campaign rhetoric, but it grows wearisome, and seems a bit disingenuous, as substantive debt ceiling dialogue.)
(Okay, another aside: “Millionaires and billionaires” – a frankly brilliant abbreviation for ginning up class resentment during a recession. I’m sympathetic to 7- and 10-figure income people paying more taxes. Good heavens, who couldn’t be? But the screeching notion one hears too often that Republicans are some sort of obtuse cabal determined to “protect” “millionaires and billionaires” from any tax increase is absurd. Republican concern with respect to the top marginal tax rate is not about Bill Gates and Warren Buffet. It’s about the huge number of small businesses that would be ensnared by this tax increase – at a moment when economic recovery will have very much to do with the viability of small businesses – as the president himself acknowledges. Now maybe Republicans need to “compromise” on some tax issues – indeed, maybe they need to couple some revenue enhancements with targeted breaks for small business (win-win?) – but to continue this bizarre demonization of Republicans for protecting rich people at everyone else’s expense fundamentally misunderstands the larger issue.)
(Okay, one last aside before I get to my point: this one I’m not sure about, and I welcome clarification from those of you who know and care more about the minutiae of this debt-ceiling issue – but did the president’s nose grow when he invoked catastrophe from “default”? There is, I believe, a critical difference in defaulting on our debt obligations versus not being able to pay for everything. All that apocalypse conjured by the president isn’t really a prospect. Worst case scenario: we can’t pay for some government functions, but under no circumstance would we default on our debt obligations, fail to pay out social security and Medicare, fail on payments to veterans, or any of the horrific scenarios referenced by the president. Please enlighten me. I want to know whether the president, you know, misspoke, or whether he, you know, is trying to scare seniors.)
With apologies for the asides, here’s my real point: the system is working. Divided government is working. The Asian markets appear convinced nothing terrible will happen in America. Our elected representatives are very busy developing and promoting competing plans that will be debated. That is good. There should be genuine debate about the trade-off between spending and taxes. There should be a genuine debate about long-term versus short-term fixes. There should be a genuine debate about tax increases during a recession.
Americans get to see that debate most robustly precisely when there is “divided government.” And sometimes “divided government” begins to look like “dysfunctional government” only because it takes some time to fully ventilate these debates and develop a consensus. But it’s not “dysfunctional” at all.
Let me emphasize this: nothing “reckless” has happened – except the rhetoric. This is messy and beautiful democracy. There will be consequences. There will be winners and losers. The American people will process all of this and vote accordingly in due course. That’s how it works. And we’ve all learned a great deal more about debt ceilings, deficits, spending and taxes than we would have without divided government.
I’m fed up with politicians and pundits telling me Americans are fed up with Washington. Nonsense. We’re all learning, and the ever truer terms of the debate are coming into sharper relief. That’s how it works. That’s democracy.
(Okay, one last aside, with apologies: I’m a bit bewildered that the president says a six-month hike in the debt-ceiling limit cannot possibly be part of a “balanced approach” or a “compromise”– when he noted in his own defense that President Reagan signed debt-ceiling increases 18 times – that is, roughly, just under every six months of Reagan’s presidency. Am I missing something? Is the president primarily concerned to push any further debt-ceiling debate beyond the 2012 elections? Good politics Mr. President.)