[This article also appears on Huffingtonpost.com. You can access it from my author page here.]
Imagine this scenario: You're pro-choice and you attend a debate between two candidates for office on the issue of a constitutional amendment to criminalize abortion. The first candidate argues that abortion is murder, and if a doctor performs an abortion on a woman, both of them should be charged with first-degree homicide. The second candidate then rises in rebuttal, saying, "No, if a doctor performs an abortion, only he should be charged with first-degree murder. The mother should be charged with negligent homicide."
Would you feel represented? Of course not. But that's what has happened with the debt ceiling negotiations.
It's easy to take shots at the Tea Party-controlled Republican leadership for holding the American economy hostage to fulfill their extreme-right, not-supported-by-the-American-people obsession with cutting spending, and how their alleged concern over debt is really a smoke screen to fundamentally change American society, returning the country back to the 1920s when corporations and the wealthy were allowed to run amok and there was no social safety net for everyone else (leading, of course, to the greatest depression of the 20th century). I did just that last week.
But what has me so angry right now is the news of Harry Reid signing off on a compromise to the debt-ceiling clash that is, in essence, a complete capitulation to the Tea Party position. I have never been so pessimistic about the state of our political process and the future of the country.
I have one simple question: Where are the Democrats?
Isn't the Democratic party supposed to be the institution in place to oppose the Republicans when they offer bad policy, especially when polls show that a majority of Americans don't share the GOP obsession with spending cuts? (Not only did polls from CBS News and Gallup show that Americans favored revenue increases along with spending cuts to settle the debt ceiling impasse, but another Gallup poll on July 20 revealed that only 16 percent of Americans thought the deficit was "the most important problem facing the country today," while 27 percent listed unemployment and 31 percent said the economy in general.)
After all, you can't blame the Republicans for advancing their agenda. And while using blackmail and putting the country's economic condition in peril may be amoral, it's pointless to expect the John Boehners of the world to stand up to that amorality.
No, it's on the Democrats, who, not incidentally, control two of the three institutions necessary to make a deal, to stand up to what Steve Benen called "extortion politics."
It's the job of the Democrats to stand firm on the proposition that the debt ceiling (honoring past commitments democratically agreed to by a decade's worth of Congresses and presidents) has nothing to do with decisions on how to handle future budgets, and to link them is just extortion politics.
It's the job of the Democrats to make the case that while fiscal responsibility is an important long-term goal (after all, it was a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, who signed the last budget with a surplus, while a Republican president working with a Republican Congress proceeded to sign off on budget after budget with deficits), with the economy struggling and unemployment high, slashing spending now will only make things worse for most (that is, those not in the top one percent of wealth) Americans.
It's the job of the Democrats to stand firm that not one dollar of spending should be cut before tax cuts are rolled back for the wealthiest Americans, tax breaks are discontinued for corporate jets, and subsidies are discarded for large oil companies raking in copious profits.
It's the job of the Democrats to continually highlight that massive spending cuts, especially slashing Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, have a human face. That while the Republicans were straight-out lying (Politfact's top lie of 2009) when they told tales of death panels and policies to discontinue care to seniors, cuts to Medicare and Social Security would actually send countless senior citizens into desperate financial situations.
But what did the Democrats do? They accepted the Tea Party premise that it was vital right now to address spending instead of unemployment and the economy. They never held firm on the idea that the debt ceiling had nothing to do with future budgets. They never pressed the case that by not raising the debt ceiling, Republicans would be taking the unbelievably un-American step of forcing the country to renege on its already agreed-to obligations. They didn't make a clear case to the American people that the GOP was holding the American economy hostage to fulfill their political motives. (For example, John Boehner admitted that many in his caucus wanted to let the debt ceiling deadline pass and "create chaos" in order to force through their far-right fiscal policies, including a balanced budget amendment, and yet the Democrats did nothing to publicize this fact.) They failed to make the case to the American people that the cuts being thrown around by Republicans would negatively impact their day-to-day lives, far more than deficits would this year. They never held firm on insisting on the wealthiest Americans, who profited most from the last decade of fiscal irresponsibility, paying their share toward the fiscal solution with rollbacks of the Bush tax cuts, standing with those looking to support the wealthiest Americans instead of the rest of us.
In short, the Democrats did more than just cave. They actually adopted the Republican position, and then engaged in a debate on how extreme that Republican position would be (offering far-right crazy in opposition to the Tea Party's all-out, society-changing crazy).
Put another way, the Democrats didn't fulfill their duty in a two-party system of representing the opposing point of view on the debt ceiling (especially, again, when polls show that the people don't support the GOP's draconian position on the issue).
It has been argued that since the Tea Party members of the House, as David Brooks put it, "do not accept the logic of compromise," "do not accept the legitimacy of scholars and intellectual authorities," and "have no sense of moral decency," the Democrats had to be the adults, doing what was necessary to avoid a default and the calamitous results for the American economy that would come with it. Under this argument, the Democrats could not stand firm because their first allegiance had to be preventing default, no matter what it took, while the Tea Party Republicans irresponsibly ran around declaring that a default would not be a big deal.
I don't buy this argument. In fact, I find that approach weak and counter-productive. What would stop the Tea Party from holding the economy hostage again and again? The Democrats had a moral obligation to stand firm to protect the American people from the Tea Party zealots in the House (and the members of the Republican leadership that were too afraid of a primary challenge to stand up to their lunatic fringe). And they failed.
As importantly, while a default and/or a credit downgrade would have been disastrous for the American economy, I'm not convinced that the drastic slashes in spending (with zero increase in revenues) in the "compromise" won't be as bad or worse. As Paul Krugman said on This Week today:
"We have 9 percent unemployment. These spending cuts are going to worsen unemployment. It's even going to hold the long-run fiscal picture because we have a situation where more and more people are becoming permanent long-term unemployed. ... I have nobody I know who thinks the unemployment rate will be below 8 percent at the end of next year. With the spending cuts it might be above 9 percent at the end of next year. There is no light at the end of this tunnel. We're having a debate in Washington, all about, 'Gee, we'll make the economy worse, but will we make it worse on 90 percent of the Republicans' terms or 100 percent of Republicans' terms?' The answer is 100 percent."
The debate over the debt ceiling was an epic test for leading Democrats, and each and every one of them failed miserably. Reid, as the majority leader of the Senate, had the ability to hijack the discussion in the same way Boehner did. Same goes for the president. But both chose to adopt the Republican position and, as Krugman said, fight over whether it would be 90 percent or 100 percent Republican.
Who was fighting for the traditional Democratic position, the one that looked out for middle-class and working-class Americans? No Democrat in a position of power.
(I want to acknowledge the argument many have made that this outcome is, in fact, consistent with the president's policy preferences, in that he, like the Republicans in Congress, favors massive spending cuts. We don't know what is inside the president's mind. But as a Democratic president, I feel like he had an obligation to stand up to the Republican madness, and, as such, I will hold him accountable for not doing so.)
So we got a "compromise" that was really a capitulation, and we had to endure sad-sack Democratic quotes, like Diane Feinstein not being pleased, and Carl Levin pointing the finger of blame at the president. It's unacceptable. If they're not happy, why didn't they stand firm against the GOP proposal?
And what is especially galling about the whole sad affair is that the Democrats have seen over the past year how far-right Republican policies are pushing voters over to Democratic candidates. It began in 2010 when Republicans lost extremely winnable Senate seats in Nevada, Delaware, Colorado and West Virginia because voters rejected Tea Party-GOP nominees (something I discussed last November). It continued through the emergence of buyer's remorse in states electing Republican governors, including New Jersey, Ohio, Michigan, Florida and Wisconsin. It was on stark display in upstate New York when voters in a traditionally conservative district elected a Democrat in a special House election. And it is currently visible in the senate recall efforts in Wisconsin. Opposing draconian cuts, especially to Medicare, has been good political business for Democrats (something Republicans, of course, realize).
So not only is standing up to Republican excesses the right thing for Democrats to do, it has also been demonstrated to be good politics. But the Demcorats still managed to completely capitulate to the Tea Party position. And in doing so, they potentially removed the Medicare issue as one they could use to hammer Republicans in 2012.
The takeaway from the debt ceiling negotiations, for me, is that while the two-party system is alive and well in the United States when it comes to partisan bickering and political gamesmanship, when it comes to the powers in Washington deciding what to do for the country, the two-party system is dead. Democrats have abdicated the role of fighting for the interests of the American people, so that we now have Republicans and Democrats who will eventually accept the Republican position.
Such a state of affairs is upsetting to me as a liberal/progressive. But it is far more of a blow to me as an American citizen. Who in Washington is presenting the argument for what is best for the whole country, not just corporations and the wealthiest one percent? Nobody I see, and certainly not Harry Reid and Barack Obama.
The Republicans are the easy villains in this sordid affair. Their behavior in holding the country hostage to push a far-right agenda out of step with the beliefs of the American people has been disgraceful.
But the Democrats can't escape blame. When the moment of truth came, they showed no resolve. I'd honestly rather have faced a government default that would have been squarely on the shoulders of the Tea Party. At least then we would know exactly what happened and who was responsible. But when working class and middle class Americans, already hammered by a decade of increasing wealth disparity and an unemployment crisis, are further ground down by draconian and unnecessary budget cuts, while the wealthy enjoy tax cuts and oil companies continue to receive subsidies, it will be sad to know that the Democrats signed off on such an outcome.
We will look back and know that when the debt ceiling issue was in play, the Republicans made their case, but nobody in a position of power made the opposing argument. The Democrats just went along. And Democratic leaders will have to live with the consequences, along with the rest of us.