The Debt Ceiling Debacle and the New Political Order

In debacles of this sort there is usually plenty of blame to go around, but, this time, the majority of the blame is uncharacteristically concentrated.

Since 1917, the debt ceiling has been raised 102 times.  From what I can tell, these raises have been more or less bipartisan and routine.  More recently, both sides have flirted with playing chicken with the debt ceiling.  Indeed, Reid’s, Durbin’s, and Obama’s voting records in the Senate were nearly perfectly partisan, as they voted against raising the debt ceiling when Republicans controlled the Senate, and for it when Democrats were in the majority.  Shame on them!

However, the Democrats as a whole never really came close to stopping a debt ceiling raise except for a couple times under Bush (under whom it was raised seven times) when the votes were close.  Overall though, it is fair to say that debt ceiling nay votes were cast on both sides of the aisle nearly exclusively to make a political point.

This changed in 2009.  Here’s some numbers: 55 republican senators in 1997 voted for a debt ceiling increase, then 31 in 2002, then 50 in 2003, then 50 in 2004, then 51 in 2006, then 26 in 2007, then 34 in 2008, then 33 again in 2008.  In 2009, 2 Republican Senators voted in favor of it.  For the second time in 2009, there was 1.  Finally, in 2010, there was 0.  This is how things stood when Republicans took back the house and a showdown was set.  Furthermore, the Republicans returned to power in large part because of the rise of the Tea Party, the majority of which, and please correct me if I am wrong here, see compromising as unprincipled behavior.  No longer were the days when a few errant politicians used the debt ceiling to make a point.  Now it was, “give us what we want or we’ll blow the country up.”  Certainly, both parties were headed in the direction of giving this ultimatum, but the Republicans got there first.

This put the Democrats in the position where they would have to choose between default or letting the Republicans take control of government.

What would you do?  The Democrats, from what I could tell, mostly gave in to Republicans, but they did it too late, so we still had a credit downgrade.   If I was President, maybe I would have fought crazy with more crazy and said, “The debt ceiling is sacred.  If you attach any conditions on raising the debt ceiling, even if it is one lousy $25 appropriation for free Fritos at a movie night for disabled children of veterans who also happen to be Hurricane Katrina survivors, I will veto it.  I do not care.  Don’t f#ck with me.”    But who knows if that would have worked.

What all of this does reveal is what I see as an ongoing fundamental shift in contemporary politics.  While Republicans are being monopolized by their extreme right wing, especially the Tea Party, the Democrats are not being monopolized to the same extent by the extreme left.  What this means is that every moderate in America is now left with a choice: Am I a Democrat or not?  Regardless of your answer, moderates will be Democrats practically, but will bolt as soon as the Republicans uncrazy themselves.  Indeed, I am proud to be one of these reluctant Democrats.  With this perspective, I start to feel sick watching a slew of “I told you so” grins on the faces of 2012 republican presidential candidates.  You get the sense that, after breaking the government, Republicans are claiming, “See, government doesn’t work, so we should make it smaller.”

Yet Obama seems to be getting most of the blame, even from Democrats.  Sometimes it makes me think I am taking crazy pills, “Why do people hate this guy so much?”  and it gets me thinking that maybe I should hate him too.  Why doesn’t he stick up for himself more?  Why isn’t he as disappointed with this process as I am?  Why is he so quick to compromise?

And as I lie here, asking those questions, and thinking about the 2012 election at 7AM, I found this video and I realized this: Obama is still the man.    Seriously, watching it was a spiritual experience.

My conclusion: I need to calm down.  Everyone needs to take a breath.  It’s going to be OK, and we all need to keep compromising.

“Compromise” shouldn’t be a dirty word.  Alicia and I compromise with each other when we disagree.  If we do not, we jeopardize our marriage.  If politicians do not compromise, they jeopardize the country.  But, if they do, for many of them, they jeopardize their job security too, and this gets back to my point about the new political alignment: Republican politicians are dependent on people who think compromise is villainous, and that’s why, right now, all moderates are Democrats.

About Jer Clifton

Look up, friend. The world is too beautiful for my eyes alone. View all posts by Jer Clifton

11 responses to “The Debt Ceiling Debacle and the New Political Order

  • David McGuire

    I think that through all of this America is failing to see a very crucial part of the problem. As Americans we have become dependent on the system, its more subtle but more powerful than the institutionalization seen in long term prisoners. When more Americans live off the system then pay into it we face downward slide that can only be righted by a change of policy. President Obama stated at his inauguration, “the question is not whether the goverment is too big or too small but whether it works”, we are seeing the results of that mindset. We are allowing a dismal tide wash away the America that was and replace it with a media regulated, jersey-shore-gestapo that minimizes the most important aspects of our culture in favor of reality television. When the countries economy is in crisis the most important thing on TV is the Casey Anthony trail…really… America needs to wake up. The socialist idealism that the current climate seems to market as “hope” and “change” seems peachy, but the reality is much darker, when you spread it all around the result is everyone having too little and sooner or later those in control run out of everyone elses money. Goverment is not the solution to the problem, government is the problem. Ronald Reagan said that standing in the same spot that President Obama make his too big or too small speech, only 30 years earlier. The light at the end of the tunnel for America may no longer exist in the way we have always felt it should, we have sold our soul to the banks and creditors.

    • JDW Clifton

      Mr. McGuire! Thanks for reading and commenting. I really appreciate it.

      You touch on a lot of points, but I want to ask one question: what do you think that we should cut? Discretionary programs are pretty small. So we have mainly Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and Defense spending. Where is big government too big?

  • Nathan C. Clifton

    compromise can be the wrong course of action. You are on a ship headed for sharp pointy rocks. The captain says to go right and the first mate says to go left. You compromise and go up the middle. What my heart yearns for is for one party to say, “Ok we will try it your way for a while and see what happens.” Instead we get sabotaged versions of the ideals of each party.

  • Don

    Health care doesn’t seem right, stimulus doesn’t seem right, starting a war in Lybia….Wait a minute. :o)

  • Nick

    This latest round of brinkmanship had me thinking that the country would be better off with more women in office. That thought died in 5 seconds from exposure to reason (which says that sex doesn’t matter), but it does indicate that the news frustrated me as well.

    Apparent brinkmanship aside, I just want to note that we haven’t had a right, left, and center position on financial issues in decades. It’s just been right, right, right. So really, the recent political theater has pushed some people into a distasteful self-alignment with the democratic party (like in 2008 wrt Bush), but not necessarily to the “left.”

    The past few weeks have been so strange that I get the feeling that Obama got exactly what he wanted from the beginning. Not only did he get to cut the government without party backlash, but he gets to come out of it looking like a reasonable guy beset by extremists – which is exactly what helped get Clinton re-elected when republicans shut down the government 15 years ago.


    • Alicia Clifton

      Nick – !!! I couldn’t agree more! Pretty much everyone is a far cry from the left on this, unfortunately…. I was thinking the same when the media kept saying how “polarized” the parties were on the debt issue… like hell!
      I hope you’re right about 2012… sometimes I think we Americans get caught up in “taking a stand” even when the stand isn’t worth taking. Isn’t it easier to rouse people with passion and fear than with reasonableness?

      • JDW Clifton

        Both of you are brilliant people making brilliant points. All I have to say is this: Nick, thanks for the word “brinkmanship.” Is that a real word? I also like the phrase “distasteful self-alighnment” to explain what has been going on for people like me, and for folks like Ryan Musser too. I think its farily common.

        But then I was thinking, the auto bailout didn’t seem “right” to me. Talk to me more about how our stance on fianancial issues have been right, right, right. There’s also wall street reform too that doesn’t seem “right.” Talk to me…

        • Nick

          Thanks, Jer.

          ‘right, right, right.’ — Essentially, both parties are base jumping capitalists. Democrats try to distinguish themselves by taking (half-hearted) stands in the ‘culture war,’ but both parties’ economic strategies (& re-election campaigns) rest on corporate eudaimonia. So, a true ‘left’ approach doesn’t exist in America. We don’t even have a pseudo-left, really.

          What I’m seeing is the extent our political parties are willing to go to preserve this politico-economic environment. If we had a left-leaning party, it wouldn’t have cut government spending, extended the Bush tax cuts, offered a tiny ‘stimulus,’ failed to provide a public option, or bought $2.02 trillion in worthless securities. So when I read people who claim that Obama’s policies (Bush 3.0, they say) shovel money into the country’s top 1%, I can’t really object. An author commenting on the London riots said that the looters of 2008 haven’t been touched and are actually -still looting-, and he’s not wrong.

          It’s weary stuff. At the risk of echoing a pinko-commie bastard, wouldn’t it be nice if our politicians decorated their suits with their sponsor’s brands? I know that the idea grates on sensibilities, but who seriously disputes the fact that our politicians cater to interests other than their constituents? Bring on the logos.


          • JDW Clifton

            2 things: one is that I tend to believe that money has a suprisingly little affect on who actually wins elections. The second thing is that I tend to be pretty pro business in some republican-like ways. I’m for doing away with corporate taxes and I’m a fairtax guy. However, I do think you have big points, especially about the public option. But, except for that, I agree with all the other things you mention.

            However, I still think that politicans should have to wear logos. That’s brilliant.

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