Joe McCarthy and the Debt-Ceiling Destroyers

David Frum writes:

Tip O’Neill, the former speaker of the House, was asked at his retirement in 1987 how Washington had changed since he arrived in 1953. He answered, “The people are better. The results are worse.”

What he meant: There are many fewer drunks in government than there used to be. Fewer crooks. Fewer ignoramuses. Fewer cheaters and sexual harassers. Yet back when Congress contained many more drunks and crooks and cheaters, nobody doubted that it would vote to pay the American national debt. This summer, a better educated, more sober, more honest, and probably less adulterous Congress pushed the United States to the verge of national default.

Back in 1953 Joe McCarthy was in Congress. But even he didn’t suggest lowering the federal tax rate to zero, as Congresswoman Bachmann proposed the other day.

Imagine a Congress composed of Michelle Bachmann, Alan Grayson, Keith Olbermann, Michael Moore, Rush Limbaugh, and Grover Norquist. Could be fun, huh?

Actually, I think it’s not a bad analogy, Joe McCarthy and the debt-ceiling destroyers. In both cases, you have congressmembers going beyond what anyone might ever have thought possible. Also, in both cases, it’s not quite clear what the aggressors’ goals are, or what they would they do if they were to “win.” McCarthy appeared on track to continue finding Communists everywhere with no end in sight. As for Bachmann et al.: What would they do after the U.S. defaulted on its debt, after the government stopped paying teachers, cops, soldiers, etc.? At that point, a follow-up crusade against gay marriage would be a bit of an anticlimax, no?

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

Andrew Gelman

Andrew Gelman is a professor of statistics and political science and director of the Applied Statistics Center at Columbia University.