A month after the standoff was resolved, the fight over the debt ceiling still stands out as a surreal tragedy.
In fact, I still think it’s the worst thing a major American political party has done in modern times. There have been plenty of misdeeds in recent generations, but there’s just something unique about the Republican Party deliberately holding the full faith and credit of the United States hostage, threatening to impose a catastrophe on all of us, on purpose, to achieve a specific (and unnecessary) policy goal. No elected GOP officials — literally, not one — ever stood up during this process to say, “Wait, this is wrong. We shouldn’t do this.” They all just went along.
This wasn’t just another partisan dispute; it was a scandal for the ages. We’re still coming to terms with the consequences — this one radical Republican scheme helped lead to the first-ever downgrade of U.S. debt; it roiled financial markets and generated widespread uncertainty about the stability of the American system; it severely undermined American credibility on the global stage.
And it appears to have been a punch to the gut to Americans’ confidence. After all of the nation’s recent challenges, the GOP’s scheme effectively kicked us when we were down.
The recently concluded debate over the nation’s debt ceiling was, without doubt, a messy process with a questionable outcome. But it was far more than that. According to a new analysis by one of the country’s leading pollsters, the standoff dealt a devastating body blow to public confidence in the economy and government that has powerful implications for the 2012 elections.
“The debt ceiling negotiation is an extremely significant event that is profoundly and sharply reshaping views of the economy and the federal government,” Bill McInturff of Public Opinion Strategies wrote in a just-completed analysis. “It has led to a scary erosion in confidence in both, at a time when this steep drop in confidence can be least afforded.”
The battle played out in Washington as a tense confrontation between President Obama and Republicans in Congress. Each side assumed that, with the outcome, the other would bear the brunt of public dissatisfaction. Obama believed he would be rewarded for appearing open to compromise and for being the adult in the room. Republicans thought they would gain by showing greater determination to cut spending.
Instead, both sides lost — badly.
As McInturff, a Republican pollster, sees it, this months-long crisis “led to an immediate collapse in confidence in government and all the major players.” The public effectively threw up its arms in disgust, which is not an unreasonable reaction.
For Republicans, this scorched-earth tack may have been fully acceptable. They’re getting a fair amount of debt reduction and they’ve taken a sledgehammer to Americans’ confidence in their own government. Sure, the GOP looks like political monsters, but they’ve made a calculated bet — a sinking tide lowers all boats. Since President Obama is the leading figure in American politics, Republicans counted on the electorate turning on him, too, even though he was responsible, conciliatory, and reasonable towards the GOP throughout the process.
McInturff believes this one fiasco has shaken the political foundations, which necessarily leads to unpredictable results. I don’t know if that’s true; we’ll find out next year. I do believe, however, that some political crimes are indefensible on a historic scale. After all Americans have been through in recent years, the fact that Republicans chose to pull this stunt, and don’t even care about the consequences, is unforgivable.