Rarely has a governmental crisis so badly diminished the stature of the key participants attempting to address it than the prolonged dispute over increasing the nation’s debt ceiling.
President Obama repeatedly shied away from exerting strong and decisive leadership and came across as someone desperately searching for a way out to avoid becoming the President powerless to avoid falling into default on the country’s sworn debt obligations.
Reading editorials, blogs and opinion pieces comparing him to Jimmy Carter must have been painful and humiliating for someone who came to office promising “hope and change” and a new way of conducting the nation’s affairs.
House Speaker John Boehner was taken captive by the right wing of his party, embarrassed time and again by accepting their definition of compromise as offering nothing and getting everything in return.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor behaved more like Eddie Cantor, starring in a 10-cent-a-seat vaudeville show and wowing his crowd of admirers by throwing rhetorical cream pies in the President’s face.
The Tea Party contingent seemed bent on shutting down government and dancing on the grave, unconcerned that it could turn out to be the burial ground for the economic well-being of millions of Americans.
Even in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence offered by leading economists and academics, some insisted there was nothing to fear from a default and, should one occur, Americans’ daily lives would be largely unaffected.
The 87 Republican freshmen in the House who reminded everyone they received a mandate last November represent about 30 per cent of the 53 per cent who control one-third of the Federal government. That’s not a mandate; that’s a cult.
The far left Democrats, furious at Obama for what they perceived as his folding under Republican pressure, insisted that everything would be just fine if the government would simply go on spending billions of dollars more, while cavalierly dismissing the long term hazards of continuing to borrow 40 cents of every dollar it spent.
Saddled with a debt of $14 trillion, adding trillions to it with no clearly defined path to eventual solvency was fiscal lunacy.
The positions of both the far right and far left were untenable, replacing practical solutions with ideological dogma. While neither view stood any chance of ultimate Congressional approval, they dominated the debate and the media coverage, crowding out more level-headed approaches and leading to scare mongering threats of withholding Social Security and Medicare payments.
The respective party leaders in the Senate — Democrat Harry Reid and Republican Mitch McConnell — emerged from the crisis with reputations intact, primarily because neither was distracted from the task at hand by the persistent and unreasonable demands of ideologically driven members.
While the compromise package agreed upon at the eleventh hour allowed both sides to claim a victory of sorts, on balance the Republicans fared a little better than the Democrats.
The package contained no taxes or other revenue producers — deal breakers for Republicans — even though the spending reductions fell short of their demands. Republicans can claim success in shifting the Washington culture away from the inexorable growth of government and spending and toward fiscal discipline and austerity.
They can take credit for winning the stare down with Obama over his insistence that tax increases or closing loopholes in the tax code be a part of any legislative package.
The deal gives Obama political breathing room by putting off any further debt ceiling action until 2013, effectively removing it as a re-election campaign issue.
Moreover, by protecting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid from serious cuts while ordering deep reductions in defense spending, Obama will be able to mollify his hard line critics on the left. They’ll still be annoyed and irritated, certainly, but not sufficiently to turn on him and support whoever his Republican challenger may be.
The far greater risk for Obama continues to be an economy mired in the mud of no growth and an unemployment rate stubbornly frozen north of nine percent. Recent news accounts of massive layoffs planned in some of the nation’s leading industries will only ratchet up the anxiety of the American people and increase the pressure on Obama to act swiftly.