Thursday, August 04, 2011

Dancing on the Ceiling

We haven’t scribbled much about the recent debt ceiling “crisis” that our country has weathered its way through (barely). One reason is that like 99.97% of our fellow Americans we had no idea what the hell was really going on and so thought we had little to offer in the way of insight (note: this did not prevent other similarly clueless folks from opining, speculating, and proscribing regularly as the crisis unfolded). However, the primary factor behind our lack of debt ceiling material was likely the nature of the subject. Without diminishing the seriousness of the threat posed by our surging national debate and the urgent need to begin to address it, the simple fact is that it’s not exactly the most riveting of conversational topics. I don’t know about you, but outside the circles of people passionate about politics (maybe 20% of the overall population), I found little interest in talking about the debt ceiling around the water cooler at work or in extended familial or other social settings. Sure there was some frustration expressed and some jokes cracked, but no desire for substantive discussions. The truth is that talking about the debt ceiling is boring, dreadfully boring. I think most people would rather go through the mind-numbing drudgery of texturing an actual ceiling than listening to someone talk about the debt ceiling.

But now that the wailing and gnashing of teeth is over (at least temporarily), a few thoughts on the subject do come to mind.

1. When people talk about being cynical about politics or fed up with the same old stuff in Congress, one of their chief complaints is that the people they voted for don’t do what they promised to. They say one thing on the campaign trail, but do another once they are firmly ensconced in the halls of power. People say that want politicians with principles and the courage to stand behind them not wishy-washy fingers in the air types whose positions pivot according to the latest opinion polls.

So when many of those newly elected in 2010 on the promise to limit government and cut spending did hold firmly to those positions and voted according to their principals, you might have expected them to get at least some degree of credit for their consistency and commitment even from those who might disagree with them. Of course, we got nothing of the kind. Instead, they were called “hostage takers” and “terrorists.” They were compared to groups like Hezbollah and the Taliban. Ironically, some of the same people who once referred to Iraqi insurgents who blew up women and children and beheaded civilians as “freedom fighters” now label their fellow Americans who have different views about the size and role of government as terrorists.

2. One of the constant media narratives throughout the debt ceiling debates was about how the Republican Party had been “taken over” by Tea Party elements, as if the Tea Party were an foreign virus that had entered the conservative body politic from the outside. The reality is that, with a few exceptions, most of the folks who are active in various Tea Party groups are the same folks who have been previously active in Republican politics or at least already held conservative views. I know a lot of conservatives. I know a lot of Republicans. I know that some of them are passionate supporters of the Tea Party movement and almost all of them are at least somewhat sympathetic to the aims of the Tea Party. The point is that if you did a Venn diagram of Republicans, conservatives, and Tea Partiers (whatever the hell that means) you’d have a lot of overlap. Adding modifiers like conservative or Tea Party to Republican is something the media likes to do to create the impression of conflict and division when in reality they are more distinctions than differences.

3. Another theme oft-sounded by the media was the Tea Party was being extreme and that they needed to compromise. As I heard Rich Lowry astutely point out on the Laura Ingraham Show a few days ago, the Tea Party doesn’t have to govern. It’s not a real political party, but rather a variety of groups that have coalesced under the broad umbrella of limited government. has been advocating left-wing causes, supporting candidates with similar views, and seeking to purge the Democratic Party of candidates whose views aren’t left-wing enough. I might have missed it, but I can’t recall a single instance of the media calling for to compromise or moderate their positions for the good of the nation. The Tea Party, like, is an advocacy group. Their role is to advocate for limited government and hold politicans feet to the fire, not to compromise.

The Nihilist drones on: Boring? This issue is not boring! While trillions of dollars of debt is a hard concept to wrap your head around, the many excellent entries in The Powerline Prize show that it can capture the public imagination if presented correctly.

On the issue of wishy-washy politicians, the blame lays right with the American people. Polls consistently show that Americans don't like deficit spending, don't want increased taxation, but also don't want to cut or resturcture entitlements or even reduce the scope of government. Because these goals are incompatable, something has to give. Historically, that has been deficits.

Now, with potential debt downgrades that would eventually force extreme increases in taxes and reductions in services, some grasp the severity of the issue. Others ask why we need to deal with the situation now when we've been running deficits for most people's lifetimes. Real leaders like Congressman Paul Ryan have provided a clear message about why this debt crisis is different from the past, but it is not clear whether his message resonates with a public that is used to FDR sized entitlements at a Reagan sized tax rate.