Debt ceiling offered a clarifying debate and message for 2012

August 4, 2011 

The story is that as Mark Twain and novelist William Dean Howells stepped outside one morning, a downpour began and Howells asked Twain, "Do you think it will stop?" Twain answered, "It always has." The debt-ceiling impasse has, as things generally do, ended, and a post-mortem validates conservatives' portrayal of President Barack Obama and their dismay about the dangers and incompetence of liberalism's legacy, the regulatory state.

For weeks, you could not fling a brick in Washington without hitting someone with a debt-reduction plan -- unless you hit Obama, whose plan, which he intimated was terrifically brave, was never put on paper. In a prime-time spill of his usual applesauce about millionaires, billionaires and oil companies, he said, yet again, that justice demanded a "balanced" solution -- one involving new revenues. His whistle into the wind came after Washington's most consequential Democrat, Harry Reid, proposed a revenue-free solution.

By affirming liberalism's lodestar -- the principle that government's grasp on national resources must constantly increase -- Obama made himself a spectator in a Washington more conservative than it was during the Reagan presidency. By accepting, as he had no choice but to do, Congress' resolution of the crisis, Obama annoyed liberals. They indict him for apostasy from their one-word catechism, "More!" But egged on by them, he talked himself into a corner. Having said that failure to raise the ceiling would mean apocalypse, he could hardly say failure to raise revenues would be worse.

As with his dozens of exhortations during the health care debate, and his campaigning for candidates in 2009 and 2010, his debt-ceiling rhetoric was impotent. Still, the debt debate was instructive about recent history, the openness of America's political process, and the nature of the American regime.

Regarding recent history: Panic-mongers warned, "Raise the ceiling lest the stock market experience a TARP convulsion." Yes, the market declined almost 778 points when the House rejected TARP. But who remembered that after TARP was quickly enacted, in the next five months the market lost another 3,800 points?

Regarding the political process: There are limits to what can be accomplished by those controlling only half of Congress, but the tea party has demonstrated that the limits are elastic under the pressure of disciplined and durable passion. As Tom Brokaw said in Washington on "Meet the Press" last Sunday, the debt-ceiling drama ended as it did because the tea party got angry, got organized and got here.

Regarding the federal regime: Before this debate, who knew that the government sends more than 100 million checks or electronic transfers a month to employees, vendors and -- much the largest group -- entitlement beneficiaries, including 21 million households receiving food stamps?

During various liberal ascendancies, the federal spider has woven a web of dependencies. The political purpose has been to produce growing constituencies of voters disposed to vote Democratic. This disposition, aka the entitlement mentality, is triggered by making the constituencies constantly apprehensive about the security of their status as wards of government.

Obama's presidency may last 17 or 65 more months, but it has been irreversibly neutered by two historic blunders made at its outset. It defined itself by health care reform most Americans did not desire, rather than by economic recovery. And it allowed, even encouraged, self-indulgent liberal majorities in Congress to create a stimulus that confirmed conservatism's portrayal of liberalism as an undisciplined agglomeration of parochial appetites. This sterile stimulus discredited stimulus as a policy.

Obama's 2012 problem is that he dare not run as a liberal but cannot run from his liberalism. The left's narrative for 2012 is that by not offering another stimulus, Washington is being dangerously frugal. This, even though his stimulus -- including cash for clunkers, cash for caulkers, dollars for dishwashers (yes, there actually were money showers for home improvements and greener appliances), etc. -- led downhill.

The economy's calamitous 0.8 percent growth in the first half of this year indicates that the already appalling deficit projections for coming years are much too optimistic. The debt increases caused by anemic growth and job creation may dwarf whatever debt reduction results from the process initiated by the debt-ceiling agreement. This may portend a vicious downward spiral as increased borrowing and the burden of debt service further suffocate America's dynamism.

America may be one-third of the way through a lost decade -- or worse, toward a lost national identity. So Republicans have their 2012 theme: "Is this the best we can do?"

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