The seemingly absolute impasse in the budget debate reveals the high dysfunction in the federal government. There’s an extraordinary reason, and it comes at, and perhaps because of, a critical juncture in our history. It’s because we now have three political parties attempting to operate as two.
For most of the past 200 years, the United States has been host to two major political parties. Pressures caused by the formation of a third party were generally transitory. The Libertarians, Bull Moose Party, No-Nothings, the American Independent Party, and many other smaller movements have come and most have gone. Some were attuned to tribal issues, unique to small segments of the population, whether industrialists, secessionists, racists, or others. Several have advanced radical or fringe positions before eventually fading away.
Today there’s a significant movement, the Tea Party movement, that in other times would have been a mere third party like the others, but which was swallowed by the Republican Party at its birth. Kept captive within the GOP organization, this movement had significant horsepower, but was prevented from congealing into a single organization. The many dozens, perhaps hundreds, of local and sometimes competing organizations were effectively corralled and harnessed to Republican ends, allowing them to expand and act out further right extremism, while also being able to maintain a polite distance on more radical stances.
Once consumed, however, the energy of that movement began to seek release. The powers in marginal control of the situation began to expand their political demands to include ever more radical positions to contain the pressure.
Now, like the story of the old lady who swallowed a fly, the wriggling and jiggling inside the Tea Party has caused Republicans to swallow increasingly significant (read crazy) notions. The confrontation over the debt ceiling is not the most perverse, what with birthers and such afoot, but it is undoubtedly the most dangerous.
The GOP has abandoned the traditional main-street values of the ‘rock-rib’ Republicans of old. Gone is the subdued reliance on plain old conservative horse-sense that once motivated their voters. Today, old-line Republicans are dazed and confused. Some of them are scared because they’ve lost control to their Tea Party Tantrum Throwers. They know that the reins of power have slipped away, and they wait for the moment when they might be snatched back.
The Tea Party, like many previous movements, serves not a clear defined issue or two, but rather an amalgam of minor causes that have long been ignored by the political main stream of the nation. Dozens of special causes both social and economic motivate the people who are drawn to its outsider stance. Lacking a serious response to their issues from government (many of which are out of the domain of government), they feel that now they can demand a hearing, and press their case through the credit they’ve earned from Republicans.
Unfortunately, the Tea Party uprising has not been fed upon the soup-stock of the GOP. They weren’t tutored in politics the way the national and state Republican committee members were. They haven’t been so much taught the Republican National Committee platform as they have re-written it in their own vision. It is a platform of splinters, rather than planks.
The Republican Party is hyperventilating, because the Tea Party is struggling to be born. It is a process that will occur, or the host will be consumed from within, leaving the nation without a near-right party for the first time since the Civil War. That would be a void that would have to be filled, and a new centrist party may emerge.
Why the debt debate is only a symptom
Never in the history of the Congress has raising the debt ceiling been a serious issue. It has always been a time when some would point fingers, and everyone would promise to stop putting their earmarks on every bill, and work together to reduce spending.
This time, it’s different.
This is a fight that was chosen, because of all the jockeying going on inside the Republican Party. It’s nothing less than a showdown, forced by the demands of the new internal militants. It’s driven by individuals who either do not understand finance, legislation, or the Constitution, or do not care that they may precipitate a financial catastrophe of a scale previously unknown in the world.
There’s no doubt that the accumulated debt of the nation has become a burden. It has grown rapidly since the large tax cuts introduced in the first year of George W. Bush’s presidency. At the time those reductions seemed affordable, since President Clinton had overseen budgets that produced a series of growing surpluses, and reduced the long-term debt. Shortly after the reductions were put in place, war in Afghanistan upset the fiscal plans. A second war in Iraq was started only a year later, with securing access to oil one of the motivators that led to the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars, and the loss of many thousands of lives.
Since early 2008, the debt has continued to grow, spurred partly by a recession that started in the financial panics that year and expanded exponentially during an eight-month period leading up to the election. It was a series of calamities that the voters clearly laid at the feet of President Bush and the Republicans, and got even by sweeping the Democrats into control of both branches of the Congress and the Presidency.
The election of the nation’s first president of direct African descent was stunning to many on the right. They were not just beaten, they were beaten by one they considered an outsider and not a real American. The endless, ugly drum-beat of accusations against President Barack Obama related to his place of birth, his background, even his religion, would not be happening if he was a white Democrat named O’Bama.
New hostage crisis
The frightening reality, at least for those hoping to live under a sane and stable government, is that a small number of incensed radicals are capable of taking over an entire nation. Germany of the early 1930’s is an example. While these folks are certainly not Nazis, and most are very well-meaning citizens who believe themselves to be in the right, they are highly motivated, and determined to change government to fit their ideologies. They can become a powerful weapon in the hands of a skilled narrator who can meld them to a cause. Today, that cause is only the federal deficit.
The US is, even in the grip of a stubborn recession, the largest economy in the world. If economists are worried about the firecracker of a possible default by Greece, they’re panic stricken that the US could cause an explosion that would crack the foundations of the global economy. The shattered results could leave us in a recession far worse than today’s, one guaranteed to linger for decades globally, and perhaps permanently at home.
The formation and initial success of new parties normally takes time, although there have been exceptions. What is clear is that the process is causing the disruption of government at the very juncture at which nimble action and cooperation are most needed to deal with the persistent recession, falling receipts, and looming debt.
It will take exceedingly strong leadership from John Boehner and Republican heads to find a way to compromise, move us beyond the danger point, and lead America away from the explosive rhetoric on to safe ground. If he succeeds in controlling the growling from the stomach of the Republican Party, he may yet win laurels. If not, he may be remembered by history as ‘Car-bomb Boehner.’
–RJ Connors for Transition Voice