Time is passing as the nation edges toward default, described candidly by the most anti-government and anti-tax conservative in Washington as a certain “disaster.” Yet no matter how many concessions on revenue and spending emanate from the White House and the Democrats on Capitol Hill, the Republicans who control the House of Representatives keep playing chicken, as if they actually want to crash the nation’s economy – and do permanent damage to America’s position in the world – for partisan gain.
Until last Friday, House Speaker John Boehner seemed to understand the enormous stakes in the debt-limit negotiations, even if his party’s loony freshman members did not.
Boehner humored the extremists with a ludicrous item of legislation — the “Cut, Cap and Balance” bill that actually sought to force a constitutional amendment through the Senate within less than two weeks – even as doomsday drew nearer. But the speaker simultaneously engaged in a serious effort to reach accord with President Obama, agreeing to revenue increases in those discussions. He lost this briefly attained courage, however, when he realized his members might reject that deal (and him).
Then Boehner walked out of the White House and vowed to reach a deal without the president by talking directly with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid — a silly notion that was blatantly designed to serve the Republican electoral agenda in 2012 rather than to achieve resolution on the debt and deficits. Now rather than work with Reid, Boehner is pursuing yet another direction with a strictly partisan bill that would raise the debt limit by only $1 trillion, forcing the Congress (and the markets) to resume the same stalemated argument next year. Meanwhile, Reid has proposed his own new scheme, offering $2.5 trillion in spending cuts with no revenue increases, in exchange for raising the debt limit by the same amount.
Every survey shows that most Americans feel infuriated by these fruitless maneuvers, even if they don’t always understand the motivations and ideologies of the players. Nearly every poll shows that most Americans fear the impact of default and want a truly balanced solution to the nation’s twin problems of growth and debt, notably including tax increases on those who can best afford to pay more (and not including punitive cuts aimed at the poor and working families).
Yet the House Republicans are willing to risk the worst possible outcome in order to enforce the political will of a small and fanatical minority. Their refusal to avert catastrophe through compromise in a divided capital is sufficiently irresponsible to invite comparisons with terrorism.
So it is long past time for President Obama to explain – in comprehensive but comprehensible detail – exactly how and why the House Republicans are endangering the nation. He needs to tell Americans why many of the most anti-government and anti-tax Republicans in Washington, notably including Grover Norquist, the lobbyist and activist, believe that defaulting on the national debt would portend economic ruin. He should elucidate the ridiculous proposals passed by the House Republicans so far, from the Ryan budget that would decimate Medicare to the Cut Cap and Balance bill, which not only demanded instantaneous passage of a wildly ill-advised constitutional amendment, but would have enshrined special protections for the wealthiest taxpayers in the founding document. That legislation eventually would have forced the complete destruction of the social safety net – and placed American security in jeopardy as well.
Obama seems to believe that bending to the intimidation of the Republicans will serve him politically, allowing him to portray himself as “bipartisan” or even “independent” of his own party. But he only looks weak at a moment when he could display great strength. Time is passing quickly, and his authority is ebbing — but it is not too late for him to lead.