But, boy, do they tread a fine line.

First up is the no-tax pledge Grover Norquist has frightened scores of cowardly Republicans (and the odd Democrat) into signing. I can make a case, if not an airtight one, that taking the oath of office as a rep or senator without forswearing a vow of this kind is an impeachable offense. The oath goes like this:

I, AB, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.

The Constitution in question starts out

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Get that part about promoting the general welfare? Should it come to pass that the general welfare (never mind justice, defense, and liberty) requires a tax increase, Norquist’s minions will be bound to violate their oath of office. It’s not hard at all to imagine realistic situations where this need is unambiguous, for example during an expensive war or even if an error in judgment by Congress reduced taxes so much that the general welfare was damaged and needs to be corrected. (Golly, we’ve had both of those already in this century!).

Norquist’s mischief needs to be distinguished from a statement of belief, for example that a pol is quite sure on the basis of available evidence that a tax increase will not increase the general welfare in his term of office; that’s a fair statement of one’s views about the world. The pledge, importantly, promises action, and it promises it without reference to any possible new circumstances. Promising to ignore facts as they may come to be is promising to damage the nation by denying it judgment and reflection.

The second is playing with the new toy the Republicans took out of the box in the last month, threatening not to raise the debt limit; that’s sure cranked up domestic tranquility. The perennially unspeakable Mitch McConnell was smirking yesterday about his plans to wield it again and again. Either they meant the threat seriously, in which case they are purely subversive of the national interest and openly so, or they didn’t, in which case they are cynical, reckless liars. Actual treason requires that you aid and comfort a foreign enemy, but… In either case, they did a lot of real damage.

The damage is not a real risk that we will default on our notes, and Standard and Poor did pooch their alarm play on that technical ground. Their business is rating specific instruments (which they suck at, but that’s a different story) and their move today was presented as a criticism of the general competence of the government to do its work. They shouldn’t have done that, but they were right on the facts [link added 6/VIII], and the stock market swoon is probably another indicator of the larger, enduring, growing problem, as is the FAA fiasco. There will be more of this.

Democrats should be better legislators and better Democrats; Obama should be more like the man we thought we voted for; yada yada. All true. But it is the radical ignorant, hater wing of the modern Republican party that waltzed into Congress prating about jobs and instead of doing a single thing that might address the core, basic, pervasive economic issue of the moment, lied, cheated, and smashed up the institutional furniture in order to put more people out of work. Government employees and the people who sell them lunch and clothes, FAA contractors and hardhats, state and local workers (and the people who sell them lunch): hit the streets.

The Democrats aren’t all they should be, but the GOP is a ruin, a wretched, demented bird down to one wing plus a tattered stump on its left side. It can’t soar or even fly, and runs around in circles squawking. Sadly, it’s not merely ridiculous, but deeply dangerous, and again, teetering on the edge of treason unless you think the “general welfare” means “income of the top 5% of Americans”, perhaps also “docile, cheap labor to clean pools”, because that’s the only thing they’ve promoted. Only; the only thing.

S&P did not diagnose a general governmental malaise, though they phrased it that way. They diagnosed a slow coup d’état by the stupid and the ignorant, the abdication of duty by a whole political party in a two-party system, and its move not just to incompetence but actual malevolence. If I thought they believed that rich people would go on a hiring binge in the US if only they could pay even less taxes, I would give some credit on the stupid and ignorant side against malice, but Heaven help us, I don’t think that. I think the Koch Brothers/Tea Party/banker-trader poodles want to be seen and heard doing stuff that will make the people who give them money happy, and I think that deep down inside, they don’t care if the poor and the old go back to the deferentially wretched state they were in in 1933, homeless and starving. And this is the first time in my life I’ve believed such a thing of more than a few oddballs rightfully sidelined from laying hands on the commonwealth.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Michael O'Hare

Michael O'Hare is a Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.