Memo to Washington: You have no idea how bad you look right now.
And another thing: No one will emerge as a winner from this debt-ceiling debate and debacle.
Not the president, who sought to grab the high ground of compromise last week by portraying his plan as “shared sacrifice” and who sought to take a populist profile by describing the debt-ceiling crisis as one manufactured by Washington.
Not the House speaker, who is visibly pained by the pressures he is feeling from both old guard and tea party Republicans, and who sought refuge last week in criticizing the president as intransigent.
Not the House freshmen, who in hewing to principle are at odds with the principles of the American system.
Not the liberal fire-eaters, who in seeking to preserve entitlement programs exactly as they are written today refuse to see that those very programs have changed as the nation’s prosperity and priorities have changed.
Everyone knows this standoff is one of the signature tests of the time — more significant than the government shutdown of 1995, which occurred in peacetime and during relative prosperity.
Everyone knows that the truth laid bare in this festival of folly isn’t that Americans are unwilling to pay the costs of their lifestyle, but that the political class is unwilling to serve the broad interests of the majority of Americans who sent their representatives to the capital to do the nation’s business, not to engage in rhetorical and economic funny business.
Everyone knows that the president and Congress have diminished themselves in the public’s eye and around the world.
At the heart of this display of self-righteousness and selfishness is a series of misperceptions by people who, sadly, pride themselves on being accurate gauges of the public’s interests, if not always the public interest.
The Washington drama is, in fact, superb drama. At the center are two relatively new faces, Barack Obama and John Boehner, and a new political force, the tea party, and together they’re in one of history’s high noons. One side believes desperately that it is guarding the interests of the poor and the vulnerable. The other side believes just as devoutly that it is standing on the ramparts of freedom and guarding the integrity of the economy. They both stand at the extremes and speak of their concern for the middle.
Historians likely will look back on this crisis with wonder, asking how the two parties could have fiddled with public opinion while Washington’s reputation, and bond rating, smoldered. They may conclude that this sorry episode was the manifestation and not the cause of the rot at the heart of the political system in this period. They will argue that the exhausting swings in public sentiment — a deeply conservative president from Texas repudiated by a liberal president from Illinois, who himself was repudiated by a grass-roots rebellion with tea leaves in its DNA — doesn’t show a public unwilling to make up its mind, but instead displays an electorate unhappy with everybody and willing to punish anybody who is in office. It is not Democrats who won in 2008 and Republicans who prevailed in 2010, but incumbents who lost in both.
The clash of Summer 2011 is largely the result of twin factors: Obama believed in 2009 he had a mandate for his own ideas, rather than understanding he was the beneficiary of public impatience with George W. Bush. Boehner may not have believed this winter that the public had given a mandate to the tea party rebels, but he felt the survival of his speakership required him to act as if he did, even if the GOP victory of 2010 came largely because the Republicans were lucky enough to be out of office when the public rebellion flared again.
The two questions for our time — two questions that cannot be answered by politicians or journalists but rather are left to historians and political scientists — are these:
• Why did the Republicans’ loss in 2008 strengthen them while the Democrats’ victory weakened them?
• Given that both Obama and the tea partiers triumphed on the strength of being seen as departures from an unresponsive political establishment, why could they not convert their visions into mainstream popularity, or even unite their own parties?
Of course, it is perfectly plausible that the fault, to reverse the Cassius calculus from Julius Caesar, is not in themselves but in their stars.
These political players — Obama, Boehner, the tea partiers — came of age at a time when the velocity and passions of the new media of the 21st century were completely out of synch with the leisurely, deliberative institutions of a political system created with the Enlightenment values of the 18th century, before “friend” was a verb and when people of the president’s race were counted as three-fifths of a person. Their ascendancy coincided with, and was the result of, the ascendancy of well-funded interest groups that bolster their treasuries by ever more aggressive appeals to the extremes. They are politicians who cannot afford to alienate the groups that support them but which foster political division.
More than 170 years ago Richard Henry Dana Jr. embarked on a great sea voyage he chronicled in “Two Years Before the Mast.” At one point he looked at this country of vast riches and wondered if it possessed men worthy of them. “In the hands of an enterprising people,” he wrote, “what a country this might be!”
In all times, but especially this fraught time, political genius consists in repudiating Bismarck’s view that politics is the art of the possible. It is in finding a way to expand the notion of what is possible. If the political class can figure out how to do that, what a country this might be.