We are headed for a nasty election year in politics. Or is the word nutsy? Over the span of three days in July our elected representatives engaged in what anyone paying attention would call a bizarre exchange of verbiage that was supposedly a debate on raising the debt ceiling.
Congressman Joe Walsh, Republican of Illinois, huffed and puffed on his official Web site:
President [Barack] Obama, quit lying. You know darn well that if August 2nd comes and goes there is plenty of money to pay off our debt and cover all social security obligations.... Have you no shame sir? In three short years you have bankrupted this country and destroyed job creation. You are either in over your head or are hell-bent in turning us into some European big government wasteland.
Oddly, the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell (who twice stated that his main goal as leader is to prevent President Obama’s re-election) had a different take. In an interview with Laura Ingraham, the senator warned that failure to raise the debt limit would likely ensure Obama’s re-election. The Republicans will be blamed for a worsening economy, he said: “You know, it’s an argument he has a good chance of winning, and all of a sudden we have co-ownership of a bad economy.... That is a very bad positioning going into an election.”
More oddly yet, the Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill and the Republican Representative Ron Paul finally agreed on something: McConnell goofed. “He has lost his mind,” declared the senator. “Obama must be grinning ear to ear,” opined the representative.
The president, for his part, cautioned a group of Republican leaders against passing a short-term debt limit increase that he promised to veto. “Don’t call my bluff,” he said, apparently meaning that he was not bluffing.
The card game metaphor is as appropriate as it is scary. The fact that our situation is ridiculous should not lull us into forgetting that we are dealing with something extremely serious. Discourse has become so irrational and polarized that we find pundits on both right and left who hold that the opposition actually wants the economy to fail for their own political advantage. Has partisanship become so hardened in this country that both parties would rather have the country fail than have their pet ideologies compromised?
Perhaps the game analogy does not best apply, in the end. At least games have rules and logic in their procedures. In politics today, there seems to be little rationality. The president, having voted against raising the debt ceiling during the Bush administration, is now asking the Republicans to vote in favor of it. The Republicans, having done it multiple times during the Bush administration now refuse to do it for Obama. Hardened partisans like Representative Walsh accuse the president of bankrupting our economy in three years, although anyone who looks at the evidence realizes that a rash rush to deregulation in 1999, an unneeded “temporary” Bush tax cut, two trillion-dollar wars, a sweetheart, unmonitored deal with drug companies and a housing collapse all occurred before Obama took office. The president is accused of radical economic policies even though many of his advisors are hold-overs from the previous administration or transplants from Wall Street.
If you think we might turn to economists to help us resolve this problem, you are wrong. You can find economists who offer more contradictory theories than you will find in the history of philosophy or a courtroom full of hired “experts.”
Our situation, then, is dangerous, but it need not be fatal. House Speaker John Boehner and President Obama may yet muster allies within their parties who will seriously address our dangerously inequitable distribution of wealth, our illusions of endless entitlements, the diminishment of the middle class, the increasing misery of the jobless and the poor, the socialism that benefits those too big to fail, and belt-tightening for those too small to care about, and the 1,000-page morass of hidden loopholes and exemptions called a tax code.
It will take time. It will take imagination. It will take intellect and heart. But most of all, it will take courage to stand up to the nasty rhetoric and nutsy intransigence that haunts our political life.