Among the staples of second-rate melodrama, there is the one concerning the child caught up as a pawn of divorce We all know the plot line; the louder and angrier the parents get in what appears on the surface to be a custody battle, the more obvious it becomes that said battle is mere camouflage for personal agendas. As the melodrama progresses we, the audience, become increasingly disgusted with both parties -- their cruel, empty-headed selfishness, their narcissism, their flaccid protestations of seeking only to do "what is in the best interests of the child." As the play progresses from Act I to Act II, we grasp that for the parties involved, doing "the right thing" is not nearly as important as victory. But at what price?
Generally, Act II of the melodrama ends with a tearful reconciliation, spurred on by a tough-yet-tender judge (think Lionel Barrymore) who brings the two warring individuals to their senses by making them see the big picture . . .
Over the past two months, the cast and crew up on Capitol Hill have been enacting their own version of this time-worn plot. Except in this case, the melodrama has been going on beyond closed doors, and the "pawn" stuck in the middle of the warring parents is not a child; it is the very future of the American economy. For the past two months, a handpicked group of Democratic and Republican legislators have been meeting regularly with Vice President Joseph Biden in an attempt to come to a compromise which will permit Congress to pass an increase in the Federal Debt Ceiling. This is the most critical issue facing Congress today; America's ability to borrow money comes to an end on August 2. Without an increase in the Debt Ceiling, the government's ability to pay interest on our debt will be severely hamstrung, interest rates will soar, American bonds will be severely down-graded, and global financial markets are likely to plummet. Both sides agree that something must be done about America's enormous debt. Both sides agree that our economy is in dire straits, that spending must be cut and government streamlined.
These are their areas of agreement.
However, it is in dealing with the question of how precisely to proceed, that the two sides begin resembling the warring couple in our aforementioned melodrama. Moreover, not everyone on Capitol Hill agrees with the Doomsday predictions of economists who foresee catastrophic repercussions if America defaults on its obligations. Both sides have drawn their respective lines in the sand. For Democrats -- who apparently have already agreed to more than $1 trillion in spending cuts -- their line involves the protection of both Medicare and Social Security, the elimination of various tax cuts, subsidies (notably for the oil industry and those multi-nationals which send jobs abroad) and -- horror of horrors -- the possibility of raising taxes on those couples making $500,000 a year or more. For a clear majority of Democrats, any solution to our fiscal crises must involve a mixture of cuts and what are euphemistically called "revenue enhancements." To Democrats, all this represents what is in the best interests of the child -- er, the economy.
The Republicans' "line in the sand" is not nearly so complex. "No new taxes. Period." The GOP, heeding the wishes of its libertarian wing, have time and again stated that the solution to our fiscal calamity will only come through shrinking the size of government; by cutting spending, shutting down programs and bringing troops home from Afghanistan. This then, is the Republican version of doing what is in the best interest of the economy.
(I for one find it utterly fascinating that after so many generations of being the more hawkish of our two parties, the GOP has of late become oh so terribly dovish. The question is, does this represent a true change of policy and of heart or merely a conscious decision to stand in opposition to President Obama on virtually anything and everything? Your guess is as good as mine).
For nearly two months, Democrats and Republicans negotiated behind closed doors. Remarkably, little inside information escaped from these sessions, although there were intimations that progress was being achieved. And then, this past Thursday, Majority Leader Cantor pulled out of the budget meetings, claiming that he could no longer in good faith negotiate with people who seek to raise taxes.
What we are witnessing in Act II of our tawdry melodrama is what might be termed "political brinkmanship." Republicans -- many of whom don't believe that America's defaulting on her obligations will be all that serious -- are playing with fire. By walking away from the budget talks, Majority Leader Cantor -- who is in lockstep with his party's "young turk" faction -- has shown that he and his party are willing to court economic disaster in order to protect taxpayer giveaways for big oil companies and more tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires. And in so doing, Cantor has solidified his position as a champion of the conservative right. In general, Republicans seem to be saying, "There is a ton of political advantage for us in voting against the Debt Ceiling. We can tell the American people that it is all the fault of the Democrats who, unlike us, wanted to raise taxes. We have been true to their wishes -- standing firmly against any and every attempt to raise taxes. That will make a great argument for the 2012 election."
Democrats also see political advantage in holding fast to their position of a mixture of spending cuts and revenue enhancements. They can just as easily claim, "We tried like the dickens to negotiate with the Republicans, but they refused to budge one inch. They were far more interested in preserving tax cuts for their wealthy friends and corporate sponsors than in doing what was right for the American economy. They were far more interested in politics than economy. We, on the other hand, did give in -- to many hundreds of billions of dollars of spending cuts. It is our position that we are all in this together -- both rich and poor, corporations and working-class families.
In terms of our melodrama, this should be the time for the tough-yet-tender judge to step in and affect a reconciliation between the warring parties.
That judge's name is President Barack Obama.
Beginning Monday, June 27, the president will meet with Senate Majority Leader Reid, Minority Leader McConnell and Speaker Boehner, in an attempt to hammer out a budget agreement which will permit Congress to pass Federal Debt Ceiling legislation. It is a daunting task. Both sides are posturing. Both sides are seemingly putting politics ahead of the commonweal. Both sides seem to be more interested in political victory in November 2012 than in economic salvation in August 2011.
The question is, What price victory?
©2011 Kurt F. Stone