Monday, August 1, 2011

It’s Ugly, But It Gets You There

In 1969, Volkswagen ran an ad with the tag line, “It’s ugly, but it gets you there.” (Instead of their car, though, they put up a picture of the lunar module that had just successfully put men on the moon.) The point was that even if the vehicle itself is not attractive, it does accomplish the goal of getting you from Point A to Point B.

That pretty much sums up the results of the negotiations this weekend to get a debt ceiling agreement before the deadline at midnight tomorrow. Neither side of this deal emerges with their dignity intact, and there are folks who are calling it the end of the world as we know it. Both Paul Krugman and Ross Douthat think it is a crippling moment for the Obama presidency. That alone certifies that this deal, as ugly as it is and with all the landmines still attached to it, is a compromise.

The Republicans and the Tea Party didn’t get everything that they wanted — there’s no requirement for a balanced budget amendment and President Obama’s resignation — and the Democrats didn’t get everything they wanted — there are no tax increases and John Boehner is still the Speaker of the House. For now.

Ezra Klein does a good job of summing it up.

The upside of this deal is that “the debt ceiling will cave in and Congress will create a global financial crisis for no reason” is not one of the potential outcomes. So that’s something.

The downside is that we actually haven’t come that far: we’re still pretending that a deal a few months from now will somehow be easier than a deal today, we’re moving to austerity budgeting — note that neither unemployment insurance nor the payroll tax cut are extended — while the economy remains weak, and we’re putting off the decisions about what to cut and how to handle taxes.

And that gets to the truth of this deal, and perhaps of Washington in this age: it’s all about lowest-common denominator lawmaking. There are no taxes. No entitlement cuts. No stimulus. No infrastructure. Less in actual, specific deficit reduction than there was in the Simpson-Bowles, Ryan, or Obama plans, and even than there was in the Biden/Cantor or Obama/Boehner talks. The two sides didn’t concede more in order to get more. They conceded almost nothing in order to get a trigger and a process, not to mention avoid a financial catastrophe.

We also have to remember that through all of this, the president and the Democrats were not dealing with rational people. When you have politicians who were willing to let the debt ceiling deadline pass and drive the economy off the cliff just to prove their point, getting the kind of compromise out the them such as this is no small feat. The simple fact is that they were crazy enough to do it; to pull the trigger on the nuke. There were times when I fully expected John Boehner to come out of a White House meeting and start screaming “Attica! Attica!”

I suspect that if we had known eight months ago, back when the White House was in the midst of working out a deal with the Republicans about extending the Bush tax cuts, that the Republicans were willing to take the economy to the edge of disaster, President Obama would have considered including the hike to the debt ceiling as part of that deal. Maybe he should have; he still had a majority in the House and the Senate and it would have been just a part of the bill. But even after all the hysteria and ranting from the right wing about healthcare and everything else the president had managed to get accomplished, including the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, it probably didn’t occur to even the most cynical of pundits that the Tea Party and the House leadership would be so depraved as to bet the full faith and credit of the United States on their political future.

It should have. It is, after all, how the Republicans have governed for the last twenty years. We can add the last month to the lessons of the past: the government shut-downs in 1995 and 1996, the Clinton impeachment, the war in Iraq, the Valerie Plame outting, the warrantless wiretapping, the torture memos, and the Department of Justice politicization under the Bush administration; these were not isolated incidents. This is how they do things; by creating a crisis and demanding ransom. It’s government by thuggery, pure and simple, and the fact that we’re still able to get from Point A to Point B is about the best that we can hope for.

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One last thing: it’s not over until it’s signed.