If you start naming the biggest political scandals of the past 50 years, Watergate and Bill Clinton’s “I did not have sex with that woman” mistake would have to be included. So would Ronald Reagan’s decision to secretly trade arms for hostages, along with the mass deception and self-deception perpetrated by the Bush administration to get us into Iraq.
However, while presidents Nixon and Clinton were led astray by their weakness for power and sex, neither consciously put the security of the country at risk. Reagan made a serious mistake, but he was at least motivated by sincere concern for the lives of U.S. hostages. The invasion of Iraq is a closer call, but even there, President Bush and his administration weren’t consciously choosing to do damage to our country.
By that standard, the most disturbing political scandal of the past half century is playing out today before our very eyes, to too little notice or comprehension. Marc Thiessen, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld and now a columnist for the Washington Post, lays the plot out there for everyone to see:
“Today, Obama is perfectly willing to go over the fiscal cliff and blame the GOP for the resulting tax increases on the middle class. But when it comes to the debt limit, he does not have that luxury. He can’t default on our debt — the consequences are too catastrophic. So in the end he will cave.
Indeed, he would have caved during the last debt-limit stand-off, in the summer of 2011. According to Bob Woodward, when Obama told his advisers he intended to veto the debt-limit bill the Republican-controlled House had passed, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner told him he couldn’t — that if Republicans didn’t give in, he had no choice but to sign their bill. “You can’t veto,” Geithner reportedly told Obama, because the consequences “would be indelible, incurable. It would last for generations.”
Republicans had Obama cornered and didn’t know it — so they let him off the hook. When the next debt-limit increase comes in February, they will know better. The president’s current negotiating leverage dissipates as soon as we go over the fiscal cliff. Come February, the tables will be turned — and Republicans will hold all the cards in the debt-limit negotiations.”
If I may, I would like to offer a pithier but still entirely accurate version of Thiessen’s advice to Republicans*:
That fool Obama cares too much about what happens to this country and its people. That is his fatal weakness. You, on the other hand, don’t care about “catastrophic” consequences that would be “indelible, incurable” and “last for generations.” Your amorality is your strength. Use it to demand what you want, or else.
Maybe it’s just me, but I find the whole idea extraordinary. Since when is the willingness to inflict “indelible, incurable” damage on our country something to be bragged about and used as leverage? Since when is it OK for a major political party to hold a gun to the country’s head, figuratively speaking of course? Has patriotism become so diluted by cynicism that such strategies can now be publicly embraced and advocated?
And of course, it’s not just some former speechwriter advocating this strategy. This is the course that the Washington Republican establishment seems ready to adopt. As Sen. Lindsey Graham told Fox Monday, “In February or March you have to raise the debt ceiling. And I can tell you this, there is a hardening on the Republican side. We’re not going to raise the debt ceiling.”
You’re not? What’s next? “We won’t pay the troops, even if it leaves the nation defenseless, unless you surrender to us on the budget?” How would that be substantively different?
Of course, Republicans have talked themselves into believing that this is all justified. They are so absolutely certain that they are correct about the budget that they are willing to knock the United States to its knees to get their way. It requires an enormous amount of self-righteousness and grandiosity to think that way, but they seem up to the task.
Somehow, it doesn’t seem to have crossed their minds that the U.S. Constitution offers an alternative means of resolving such disputes. It’s called free and open debate. It’s called elections. We just had one, focused largely on the issues at stake here; they spent well over $1 billion trying to sell their viewpoint, and they lost.
Now, having failed to convince the rest of their country of their wisdom, they believe that their desperation gives them the right to impose it under threat of grievous harm?
That isn’t leadership. That isn’t patriotism. It is the act of a petulant, frustrated three-year-old threatening to hold his breath until the country turns blue.
Which, now that I think about it, it may very well do.
– Jay Bookman
* A more risque, profane and metaphorical version of the strategy is available here.