A critical juncture... A high-stakes stand-off...
Insert your own attention-grabbing phrase here.
But this is not hyperbolic, I''m afraid. This is very real.
The obstructionist, anarchic members of the Tea Party are happily staring down President Obama, with nothing less than the Full Faith and Credit of the United States hanging in the balance.
The media talks about how the Republicans need a "fig leaf" so that they can end this. Some little concession from the President -- elimating the tax on medical devices in the Affordable Care Act? chained CPI for Medicare? approval of the XL Keystone pipeline? -- and the House Republicans, including the Tea Party, will spring into action, open the government, raise the debt ceiling. All will be good.
Without context, it sounds as if negotiation would be the natural move for both sides. When engaged in a stand-off, both parties should reach out, talk, compromise -- right? So it plays to the bias in our brain for symmetry (see Brain Bugs by Dean Buonomano for a brilliant description of some of the cognitive flaws that lurk in all of our brains).
That is exactly wrong. This goes to a fundamental principle in our constitutional democracy.
There are a few of these. Should we compromise, for example, on whether each citizen is entitled to a full vote? Of course not. Here the principle is less well known, but I would argue, at least as significant:
No elected officials should use the threat of doing economic harm to the United States as leverage to achieve policy goals. Ever.
This kind of threat (some have compared it to "terrorism," though I think that muddies the water) cannot be accomodated without seriously weakening the legislative process and rendering moot the opportunity for accountability that elections provide. It would bring our regular, zigzagging, incremental political process to a halt, and replace it with an endless struggle of... predator vs. prey.
All of the factions in the country would soon strive to overpower each other, the more radical their tactics the better. And for those of us who just so happen to live here? I'm afraid we would have to get used to hopping madly, like frightened animals, from crisis to crisis.
(See all of recorded history, for examples of this. It is important to remember that the limited success of representative democracy in the modern era is the exception not the rule.)
Republicans argue that they don't want to give up the leverage they have (i.e. threatening not to raise the debt ceiling) before negotiating with the President. That would be crazy, they insist.
But what they fail to see is that this is not valid leverage. The leverage that the Republicans (and the Democrats, and the President) should look for is what they have traditionally used in the legislative process: votes, favors, tit for tat, horse-trading, persuasion, public relations, obfuscation, sound bites that appeal to voters.
Those are the levers that an elected official is understood to have at his or her command. Lots of little switches. Not shutting off the power source altogether and smashing the instrument panel.
If any Republican reader still objects, let me propose this thought experiment...
President Obama has policy goals of his own, correct? One of them is to require purchasers of guns to undergo a background check, to prevent the mentally ill, or those with violent criminal records, from buying firearms. Most Republicans oppose this.
What, according to Republican logic on the debt ceiling, would prevent President Obama from refusing to sign ALL legislation, including raising the debt ceiling, or anything else, for the remainder of his Presidency, unless background checks are passed?
In other words, Republicans insist that their refusal to raise the nation's debt ceiling is their leverage to make changes. But they forget that this is not exclusively their leverage. The Democrats and President Obama have it at their disposal too! But they refuse to go there. Why? Because they understand that it is simply an invalid move in a constitutional democracy.
The media -- and our brains -- may get confused. But there is no "fig-leaf" concession that can be made on this. If the Republicans do not raise the debt ceiling, and the U.S. defaults on its debts, and we inflict an economic downturn or even a recession on ourselves, then we will enter a very dangerous and painful period in our national history. But if it happens, then the blame will fall squarely on the Republican members of the House of Representatives.
Making concessions now, in order to placate the Tea Party Caucus or anybody else, will only mean that this default will come later rather than now. At some point, preferably earlier, the validity of the attempt itself must end.
I hope President Obama concedes nothing.
Let them know that politics, in a republic such as ours, must be waged in the language of compromise and trade-off and cost-benefit analysis.
Ours is not an absolutist system; the absolutists and anarchists in the Republican Party and the Tea Party will have to be taught that. Paradoxically, the President will have to teach them that by the strength of his defense of one of representative democracy's few absolute principles.
(By the way, I'm glad President Obama knows his Lincoln; this was the paradox of that presidency too.)