Friday, June 24, 2011

The debt ceiling debate is not suitable for public consumption

The Prospect (I link to them too much, don't I?) today posted this "noxiously xenophobic campaign ad" for a the Republican candidate in a Nevada special election.



Their main takeaway seems to be, "Wow, the GOP hatred of the Chinese is both completely irrational, and yet another reason Jon Huntsman can't win the nomination."

I agree! And I might emphasize even further the disturbing racial undertones in the ad. Consider the Chinese reporter's last line: "And that is how our great empire rose again." And then Mark Amodei's first: "It's not too late to stop this nightmare." There's more than a whiff of Yellow Peril to the whole thing.

But the writers at the Prospect (and now, me) are burying the lede. The most significant line in the ad has nothing to do with China. It's in the last few seconds: "As your congressman, I'll never vote to raise Obama's debt limit and risk our independence."

That line indicates the emergence of the debt limit debate into the cultural zeitgeist in a way that should be, frankly, a little bit frightening.

Prior to 2011, here is how debt ceiling votes generally proceeded: Everyone in Congress privately acknowledged the need to raise the debt limit. As a result, a sufficient number of congresspeople on both sides of the aisle would always vote to raise the limit. A certain number of opportunistic congresspeople (for example, Senator Barack Obama) placed a symbolic vote against the limit, sounding a note of protest against "out-of-control deficit spending." And then the whole sordid episode was forgotten until next time.

There's a certain variety of congressional point-scoring that nobody outside of DC notices, which the debt ceiling vote used to perfectly exemplify. In spite of all the unseemly posturing around the issue, voters on election day didn't know or care who had voted to extend the debt limit. And that was fine: the average voter probably didn't know that the extension was a foregone conclusion, either.

Now, all that has changed. The debt ceiling has gone mainstream. And we're getting candidates like Mark Amodei. Think again about what he says in his ad: "I'll never vote to raise Obama's debt limit and risk our independence."

"I'll never vote to raise Obama's debt limit"

"never"

These aren't the words of a man who understands and acknowledges the political realities of the debt ceiling. And they're certainly not the words of a man who is leaving himself room to cave on the issue, if necessary. There's no hedge in his statement -- no "unless accompanied by a path to a sustainable budget," or "until Obama accepts spending cuts." These are the words of a man who really believes he's going to get to Washington and, by god, vote against the debt ceiling. No matter what.

No candidate should make the deficit extension a major part of his platform, because there's only one rational position to take: it must be raised. Politicizing the issue, so that people are forced to take sides one way or the other, is dangerous. To the credit of the Republican congressional leadership, they seem to realize this. Ultimately, John Boehner and his high-level cronies will likely back down and vote "aye." To their discredit, they've not seemed to consider the secondary effects of demonizing the debt ceiling. The Republican willingness to play chicken with default, and use it as a substantive bargaining chip, has legitimized the idea that default is somehow a valid policy option. And we're just beginning to see what happens after that, as this concept worms its way into the brain of the Republican base. Cue Mark Amodei, running on very public, very unflinching opposition to further deficit extensions.

Hopefully, the problem will stay manageable. But Republican grassroots hysteria has gotten out of control before. And as we trudge towards yet another angry August, it would be good to remember that we simply can't afford to let it get out of control this time.

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