The Washington kabuki

It’s playing out just as any predictable, poorly-written melodrama might, these “negotiations” to raise the federal debt ceiling and avert a national economic emergency, particularly when the play is performed by such transparent and ham-handed actors.

As expected, yesterday the Senate refused to go along with the House bill to cut government spending and pass a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution (which even National Review’s Rich Lowry is against); it was thought this might provide the cover for enough Republicans to be able to say that they had done their best to comply with Tea Party demands but now had to vote for a debt ceiling hike to avert a crisis, but we haven’t seen that start so far.  Then, Speaker Boehner dramatically announced he was “abandoning” his negotiations with President Obama and laid all the blame on him for not giving in to the no-tax-hike meme…before he announced he would continue negotiating.  Obama says Boehner’s rejected a plan with less tax increases than what the Gang of Six proposed earlier in the week, and he’s called for more negotiations this weekend, while Senate leaders are trying to revive the scheme to let the president raise the debt ceiling without members of Congress having to cast an approving and politically-dicey vote.

Politically dicey?  Yes, for the many Republicans in the House more worried about getting a Tea Party-ish challenger in next year’s primary election than they are about the United States defaulting on its debts.  How’s that for statesmanship?

(Check out the letter Boehner sent to House Republicans on Friday, and expect to see/hear the verbiage again in campaign ads.)

So they talk this weekend, and come out of the talks to stand in front of the microphones and say predictable things.  I feel pretty confident they will come up with some way to beat the deadline and raise the debt ceiling to prevent default, even if they don’t tie it to spending cuts or increased revenue (which isn’t necessary—these are separate albeit related issues).  But I wish they would take advantage of the opportunity now to take some action on spending and revenue, because that’s going to have to be addressed and sooner would be better than later.  David Brooks thinks so, too, arguing that “Standing still is not an option.”

Doing nothing could lead to default and the end of American economic supremacy. The compromise put together by Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, and Mitch McConnell, the Republican minority leader, that’s been floating around is a ploy to evade responsibility. Punting with some small package would spook the markets and reflect dishonor on yourself.

(snip)

You do it because you know the political climate will be worse for a deal in 2013. If you’re a Republican, you know Obama might win re-election, and even if the G.O.P. swept everything, you know your party wouldn’t have the guts to cut entitlements unilaterally (that’s why the cut, cap and balance bill didn’t mention the specific programs that would face the ax). If you’re a Democrat, you know Obama might lose, and, even if he doesn’t, the Senate will likely tilt rightward.

Mostly you do it because you want to live in a country than can govern itself.

(snip)

…this is the next step in the journey toward economic health.

This is our time

To call for sacrifice, the president will have to be willing to make a sacrifice himself.  Obama can offer his own political career. He can put his reelection on the line. He can make the 2012 election a national referendum on doing the right thing.

Evan Thomas, Newsweek, Nov. 13, 2010

George Bernard Shaw suggested that “If all the economists were laid end to end, they would not reach a conclusion.”  I prefer the rephrasing (source forgotten) that if you laid all the economists in the world end to end, they’d still point in every direction.  Like me, trying to figure out what to make of the budget compromise in Washington, D.C.

President Obama and the Senate Republican leadership agreed on a two-year extension of the Bush tax cuts, including those for the highest-earning Americans, in exchange for a 13-month extension of unemployment benefits and a temporary reduction in payroll taxes.  Is that good or bad?  Sounds like it’s good for the highest-earning Americans and the people who’ve used up their state unemployment benefits, at least.

Do you go with the argument that Obama is too reasonable for his own good, and that although he gave in on something he wanted in order to get something else he thought was more important right now, he’ll eventually have to say no to his political opponents or he’ll never get what he needs to deliver on his promises?

How about the argument that Obama’s emulating President Clinton by siding with “the people” rather than with one party or against the other, hoping that in two years the people will hate both parties enough to vote for him?

There’s no guarantee Congress will sign off on the deal: do you wonder about the fact that the GOP leadership doesn’t have all its ducks in a row to support this compromise, precisely because it will increase the deficit by hundreds of billions of dollars, especially one leading quacker who supported Tea Party favorites over establishment Republicans in the last election and might have some sway over new members?  Is it at all concerning to you that the White House finds it necessary to “warn” Democrats that not supporting the compromise could revive the recession?

Are you persuaded by the argument that this compromise, in which neither side made a truly painful political concession, means that no one in Washington is really serious about doing anything about the deficit right now?

I’m persuaded by Clarence Page’s conclusion that both sides are putting off the bloody fight until spring, when they’ll have to make a decision on raising the national debt ceiling—nothing focuses the attention quite like impending doom.

Whether the big fight happens then, or sooner or maybe later, I think I’d like to see what Evan Thomas suggested: that Obama take a stand—and yes, stake his presidency—on a call for Americans to make the necessary sacrifices to save ourselves from catastrophe.

…being honest about the real choices is the only way Obama can break through the noise and chatter. It is also absolutely necessary to save the country from very hard times ahead, or at the very least a steadily declining standard of living. Obama needs to start by explaining the mess we’re in.

Presidents have an ability to go to the people and ask us for what we wouldn’t choose to give.  And Americans stand up for their country, and for each other, in the face of a common enemy, whether we voted for the guy in the White House or not.  This could be our time to find out who the real patriots are, if only our leaders are strong enough to ask us to stand up.