Clock ticks as extremists carry the day

The Red Sox move on to the ALCS, Gronkowski may play for the Patriots on Sunday, a Newton-based foundation is poised to save Boston’s First Night Festival, the school buses are rolling in Boston after an illegal one-day strike, so all’s right with the world. Not so fast.  Even these positive headlines can’t compensate for the mess that is Washington’s own making.  Forests have died to generate newspaper coverage on the impasse over the budget and debt ceiling. The Internet has been a swamp of frustration and anger. And no one can be certain that a reasonable resolution will occur, certainly not in a timely way.

It’s easy to think that we’ve entered a new dystopia, that our partisan divisions have never been so deep, nor incivility as rampant. But the  vitriol of our nation’s early press and politics made today’s diatribes look like child’s play. Remember  also the American Civil War. And at other times, such as during the Vietnam conflict,  public incivility led to shedding blood on domestic soil.  The good old days weren’t so great.

But there is something especially troubling about today’s battles. Our 24/7 news cycle and need for instant communication intensify our despair at the enmity and intransigence. The debasement of what actually is newsworthy, means a wild-eyed fanatic who sets his hair on fire while shouting nonsense gets to be a Youtube sensation,  cable news pundit or valuable political talk show guest.

In this atmosphere  a small minority of ignoramuses in the Republican-controlled House, having succeeded in getting the government partially shut down, are poised to cause the nation, for the first time ever, to default on its debt. The tail wagging the dog could severely damage the global economy along with our much vaunted reputation as a world leader. Note the concerns raised yesterday by the International Monetary Fund. All this because Rep. John Boehner, citing the Hastert Rule, won’t jeopardize his Speakership by standing up to the Tea Party and its antipathy to the Affordable Care Act. [He ignores the fact that former House Speaker Dennis Hastert himself recently said failing to bring legislation to a vote without majority party support was never a binding rule and  should definitely not be used in risking the full faith and credit of the United States.)

Conservative commentator George Will noted on National Public Radio this morning that this isn’t the first time an opposition group has tried to tie a policy change to  the debt ceiling, including the 1970’s when Ted Kennedy and Walter Mondale tried to tie campaign finance reform to the debt ceiling vote. Nor is it somehow un-American to vote against raising it.  Even then-Senator Barack Obama, back in 2006, voted against raising the ceiling in an effort to restore the so-called pay-go approach to funding programs.  He has since acknowledged it was the move of a rookie Senator making a political vote.

But these past votes were more partisan political theater and negotiation gambits. They were  not intended to lead to default or bring the country to its knees, which is what today’s  ideology- driven Tea Party appears willing to do. [How do you deal with those who are not only driving at you, after throwing away their steeling wheels, but also truly believe that they won’t be hurt from any ensuing crash?]

Governing was easier, and dare I say more responsible,  when politics was controlled by strong parties and party control was in the hands of political bosses. Many of us  pushed for candidate selection reforms  in  the 1970s. We fought to replace the power of undemocratic  old men  in smoke-filled rooms handpicking candidates, choosing instead the people power of civic minded voters engaged in open primaries. Could it be time to admit that, in our earnest zeal to make the world better, we reformers have fallen prey to the law of unintended consequences?

The bosses of yore, some corrupt and others merely  intoxicated with their patronage and kingmaker powers, were dealmakers, not ideologues. They could negotiate and steer a middle course (even if it was to preserve their own power to fight another day).

The dirty little secret was that most voters care far less about politics than reformers thought they should. Opening up the process has seen lower participation at the national level and even less at state and local levels. In the wake of the emasculation of the bosses, reforms have ushered in  the ascendancy of  ideologically committed activists on the right and left.  Today, thanks to gerrymandering excesses, fewer than three dozen House districts are swing districts.  The remaining House members need respond only to the extremes of their parties, the ones who bother to vote in primaries. Their fear is only that they not be beaten by a primary challenger more extreme than they are. A largely apathetic center has enabled things to get worse.

The Affordable Care Act will live for now. Even Boehner knows that. The House has tried more than 40 times to kill it.  The Senate has held.  Now, a week into the partial shutdown of government, talk has turned from the ACA to the debt ceiling  and the dire economic consequences if the impasse is not resolved by October 17.

Authorization to raise the debt ceiling should never be held hostage, regardless of who sits in the White House. Congress should pass a clean Continuing Resolution, restore government functions, lift the debt ceiling and, as a face-saving move for all sides, agree to negotiate some comprehensive approach to budget, entitlements and debt management and, once and for all, get beyond the ugly standoff. Then again, my hopes may be better placed with the ALCS combat, where both sides by and large follow the rules of the road and the losers don’t sack the ballpark, pick up the bases and go home.

I welcome your comments in the section below.

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