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.