You can’t stop watching it! One minute I think I am watching the excruciating, slow-motion train wreck scene from the opening of the old Harrison Ford remake of “The Fugitive.” The next, it seems the vise of necessity, of catastrophe, is compelling parties in sharp conflict to take shelter together against a gathering tsunami. The tactical play is spectacular. But so is the rising sense of dread.
I am talking, of course, about the showdown over extending the federal debt ceiling. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Fed Chairman Ben Bernake have both now joined a spreading alliance including big slices of the corporate world in warning that disaster awaits failure to get this done. In addition, less than six months after the Democrats got a “rebuke” in the Republican takeover of the House last November, Barack Obama’s campaign coffers are now swimming with money, some corporations are growing fearful of the recklessness of the Republicans, and Obama’s emergence as “the only grownup in the room” in debates with Republicans has steadily advanced.
The Republican rejection of Obama’s 10-year $4 trillion debt reduction plan (almost agreed to by Speaker Boehner, and including some balance between program cuts and tax increases on the rich) exposed their utter insincerity on debt. Yet, Republicans owe their takeover last fall to so-called tea party fanatics who came to Congress to pontificate not legislate, to indulge in psychological debasement not government. Mitch McConnell’s call to give up on budget negotiations and just give the president the power (and blame) to raise the debt limit was the equivalent of the white flag of surrender.
Problem is: most of the Republican presidential field, and at least 80 House members, are screaming “sellout” and “no compromise.” Michelle Bachmann, would-be tea party candidate for president, was asked to comment on predictions by Treasury Secretary Geithner and other experts of catastrophe and cataclysm in the event of default, or even flirting with default. Ms. Bachmann asserted, without an ounce of evidence, “Well … he’s wrong.”
They do not appear to understand that they have already been beaten, politically. That makes the Republican retreat disorderly, and dangerous.
The experienced Republican leadership, however does seem to understand. In fact some commentators are arguing that Wall Street would be a big loser in any default – interest rates and borrowing costs would skyrocket, killing many financial institutions, and the stock market would crash – so “they” will compel the Republicans to fold in the end. Some think the whole showdown is just a big drama staged for constituent benefit, and does not justify the concessions the president has put on the table. On the other hand, a big part of the battle with the Republicans is about winning independent voters back after losing them in 2010.
So, the endgame is still not known. But – here is a big problem. The “endgame” in the debt-ceiling showdown is NOT an endgame.
The president has been adroit and sophisticated politically in isolating and dividing the Republicans and it looks like he is winning over the independent voters who abandoned the Democrats last fall. But the price paid for this adroitness and sophistication is a concession to Austerity Economics.
Putting basic entitlements such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, alongside many other important programs, on the table for cuts or elimination, in order to reduce debt before insuring the economy is growing and creating enough jobs to recover – this is a prescription for a decade of stagnation and more recessions with little or no recovery. You can’t fix unemployment with layoffs! But that’s what all the hot air about deficits is intended to cover up, that’s the real program of the rich and the right, as Mike Konczal writes: to insure “a wide refocusing of the mechanisms of our society towards the crucial obsession of oligarchs: wealth and income defense.”
Mr President: Respectfully, this is not a sustainable path forward. The people have little patience for sophistication when nearly every family is helping to support a family member or neighbor without work, and no help in sight. Jobs must come first, before debt.
And if we must indeed suffer – in the slight chance we have of going into default and catastrophe – it will be time for you do an immediate political “pivot” away from the banks to the working people. If not – not only the economy will take a huge hit, but so will the movement and coalition of hope that united behind you as president.
Photo: Budget talks are a hot topic as President Obama speaks to reporters July 15. White House photo/Lawrence Jackson