Soundings: The Politics of Choosing Between Scylla and Charybdis

            Now that the country has narrowly avoided what most financial and political leaders here and abroad regarded as the likely cataclysm of a national default, the newspapers, blogosphere, magazines and airwaves are literally rife with stories and commentaries attempting to make sense of this self-imposed and agonizing national political ordeal. Predictably perhaps, many are writing on “who won” and “who lost” and for what reasons. Others, more interesting to be sure, are searching for explanations of why this near catastrophe occurred.

            One stable of writers, including the noted economist Paul Krugman of the New York Times, concluded even before the ink had dried on the deal that the president had surrendered to those seeking to abandon the nation’s traditionally tenuous safety net of social programs. In this view, President Obama was outwitted or weak or maladroit, or all of these, and he gave away the store to those “ruthless” leaders of the GOP and Tea Party who could never win similar concessions at the polls. These authors contend the explanation for the final deal including only expenditure reductions is a misguided or pusillanimous leader who was outwitted by smarter and stronger, if perhaps less admirable, individuals. These analysts argue President Obama should and could have behaved differently and had he done so, the significant reductions now on tap for the nation’s domestic budget would not be set to occur in so unbalanced (in their view) a way.

            Other commentators, meanwhile, including the redoubtable Elizabeth Drew in the current issue of the New York Review of Books, have attributed the President’s apparently inexplicable and presumptively anti-Democratic stand to pursue deficit reduction and to remove billions of federal spending from the national economy when that economy is already stagnant and suffering from very high unemployment levels, not as weakness or misguidedness, but as pure political opportunism. Or, to put the matter more politely, perhaps, the President behaved as he did out of political pragmatism. President Obama, in Drew’s view, has been persuaded by his political advisors that to pursue what many citizens believe to be a pragmatic and necessary stance of strong deficit reduction (however dubious in the near term in many economist’s eyes) puts him in especially strong stead with the independent voters he will need to attract to prevail in 2012. In this interpretation, neither the public interest nor the President’s presumed character flaws caused the revenue-less final agreement. It resulted instead from simple political calculus. Whether that is a defensible stance depends in part on how you regard the bargain struck.

            Finally, the voluble Robert Reich, Secretary of Labor under President Clinton and now Professor of Politics at the University of California, Berkeley, has suggested that a specific group within the GOP with Tea Party sympathies held the nation hostage in this episode to its dogmatic anti-national government stance with what he believes will be long-term negative consequences for the poor, the elderly and all other vulnerable groups.

            I want to focus here on an implication of Reich’s argument that he does not reach. Reich’s contention, coupled with the “explanations” outlined above, raises a vexing question. On what basis did hard-line rabidly anti-tax and anti-government GOP representatives believe they were acting when they tied their “no compromise” call for sharp deficit reduction to the need for the nation to raise its debt ceiling? Was it simply ideology, as many have averred? That is, did those making the claim decide a priori that sharp reductions in federal civil spending were both necessary and appropriate and conclude on that basis that their stance was appropriate or even prudent? That is, did ideology find this group arguing that the end justified the means? But even if those making the claim were small-government ideologues (as many doubtless are), that does not explain their evident willingness to humiliate their own party leader when he appeared to them too willing to compromise with the President. Nor does it explain the apparent willingness of many in this number, including GOP presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann, to sacrifice the nation’s good faith and credit, and perhaps its economy and potentially that of many others internationally, to an absolutized and dogmatic assertion of its claims.

            Nor, finally, does it in fact justify why the group thought it appropriate in the first place to use the debt ceiling as a cudgel to gain its way. Reich calls this stand “holding the nation hostage,” but I am left wondering if it de facto represents the emergence of a brand of minority tyranny. Let me be clear: whether adopted by progressives or conservatives, absolutism implies a willingness to delegitimate a share of the citizenry simply to gain one’s preferences. When such is imposed (de facto or otherwise) that stance can only be labeled for what it is, a brand of tyranny. Moreover, as a matter of fact, opinion polls indicate that the majority of Americans do not agree with the stance of the (largely) House group that took this stand, nor do they embrace the specific policy aims of this set of partisans.

            And one might ask, too, whether demanding “no compromise” and being prepared to carry the nation into default to avoid such an outcome represents an ethical breach with the nation and with the leaders’ oath of office. House and Senate members are elected not to serve an ideology or even a state or district alone, but the nation. On what basis could it be argued that default was in the nation’s (or indeed globe’s interest)? If there is a claim for default here, why not take the matter to the electorate in the coming election cycle? More deeply and perhaps more pressingly, who empowered a small group of elected officials representing a minority of the population (perhaps 17 to 18 percent of all voters share these views) to make these claims while threatening to place the nation in default if they were not met?

            While I do not have answers to these concerns, they raise additional and unsettling issues. Did the President and other leaders really have any other responsible choice but to deal with those who would not deal? What are the implications for the nation and for freedom of continuing to make political choices in this way? Like many Americans, I am at a loss to articulate how the President should have dealt differently with a rabidly ideological coterie, many of whom perceive him as illegitimate as a leader and who were willing to sacrifice the nation to default to realize their particular beliefs. To say this is unsettling is to understate significantly the challenge to democratic governance in the United States this turn represents.