This editorial will appear in Sunday’s print edition.
It’s still only May, and the nation’s economic interests have already taken a back seat to the November elections.
House Speaker John Boehner is dropping dark hints about forcing another debt-limit showdown, the first of which – last summer – shook the financial markets and led to a downgrade of America’s credit rating.
After a testy exchange Wednesday with President Barack Obama, Boehner had an aide tell the public that the House wouldn’t approve any increase in the debt limit “without doing something about the debt.”
Obama’s press secretary countered with a presidential vow to reject “an approach that asks the middle class and senior citizens to make sacrifices without asking for anything more from millionaires and billionaires.”
That’s pretty much sums up the competing political pitches of Republicans and Democrats: For public consumption at least, Republicans insist America’s $15.7 trillion national debt can be handled with spending cuts alone.
Democrats prefer to talk about making the rich pay their “fair share,” as if increasing taxes on the wealthy alone would get the country anywhere close to fiscal health.
The pity is, Boehner and Obama know better. They proved it in July when they came within a cat’s whisker of a historic 10-year strategy that would have combined revenue increases and spending cuts to bring deficits under control.
In March, both The Washington Post and The New York Times meticulously reconstructed the negotiations that almost produced that deal. In the private negotiations, both Boehner and Obama acted like statesmen at the outset; both seemed willing to buck their parties’ talking points in order to steer the United States away from a European-style debt crisis.
In the end it fell apart, the two men accusing each other of bad faith. Left to themselves, they might have pulled it off. But both feared getting whacked by their own supposed allies. The deal included what looked like taxes in disguise, and it didn’t include the “fair share” from the wealthy.
Hard-line Republicans and Democrats both rebelled – proof that enemies of compromise now have a bipartisan stranglehold on Congress.
The president’s own commission on fiscal responsibility, led by Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, pointed out the obvious a year and a half ago: The United States isn’t can’t get off the road to Athens without an unpopular combination of taxes and spending cuts, including cuts to Medicare and defense spending.
Americans just can’t have it all – modest taxes and untouchable, generous entitlements. The fact that rational men like Obama and Boehner must pretend otherwise, in election and non-election years alike, is evidence that partisanship outguns patriotism in today’s Congress.