Saturday, April 9, 2011

Who’s Driving This Bus?

Like the sword of Damocles, the shutdown of the United States government loomed over all our heads, and with the two sides so close they could practically smell each other’s aftershave lotion, one wondered what the outcome would be. Would reason prevail over irrationality, or would we see a repeat of 1995? The sand in the hourglass was rapidly running out. Like a runaway train headed towards a major city, eight hundred thousand federal workers prepared for the worst. And a nation held its breath.

And then … the heavens parted. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. With less than two hours till a shutdown, a deal was finally struck between both sides that averted what would’ve been a disastrous situation. Make no mistake about it, a government shutdown would’ve set an already fragile economy back on its heals, perhaps back over the cliff into a double dip recession.

How could we have gotten into this mess? One word and one word only adequately describes the situation: insanity. If you want to see a living, breathing definition of the term just head down to Washington D.C. and visit the Capital building. Watching these characters is like watching a Looney Tunes cartoon, only at least Mel Blanc’s characters were funny and entertaining. This group is just dumb and hopeless.

Blame? Oh, trust me, there’s plenty to go around.

First up, the Republicans. After getting most of what they were looking for in cuts from the Democrats – or at least as much as they reasonably thought they could score – the GOP was set to let the government shut down over policy riders that defunded Planned Parenthood, healthcare reform and PBS, as well as preventing the EPA from enforcing laws aimed at reducing greenhouse gases.

Republicans were demanding $40 billion in cuts; Democrats up’d their offer from $33 billion, which had been tentatively agreed to by both sides a week ago, to $38 billion. They eventually settled on $38.5 billion with no riders attached. Heavens to Betsy!  Add that to the $10 billion Republicans got in the previous two CRs and it was a pretty good day in GOP land.  Don't believe the hype that this was only about cutting 2.6 cents out of every dollar the government spends.  The truth is the entire budget was never on the table.  With defense and entitlements untouchable, the real number was closer to 20 cents out of every remaining dollar, virtually all of it social programs aimed at helping middle and lower income people.  Millions will be affected by this deal in a profound way.

And John Boehner? He now has about as much power as Superman under a pile of kryptonite. Let’s face it he was damned if he did, damned if he didn’t. If he gave in and struck a deal with Democrats to prevent a shutdown, he risked a primary challenge from his own party next year; if he held the line and catered to the Tea Party, he ran the risk of repeating Newt Gingrich’s mistake of believing that temper tantrums woo independents. Hint, they don’t and Boehner knew that. In the end, he chose the lesser of two evils. He’s the only one who comes out a winner here, if only for a little while.

Second up, the Democrats, or as I like to call them Washington’s version of the Florida weather. If you don’t like their stance, wait five minutes and they’ll change it. Before you go crying for them Argentina it’s important to remember one essential fact. None of this nonsense would’ve happened had this party not had its head up its ass last fall and passed the 2011 budget when it had both Houses of Congress. Charges of GOP obstructionism can only get you so far. The threat of a filibuster by Senate Republicans could’ve been overcome had Democrats simply worked together instead of fighting amongst themselves. It was the Blue Dogs and not Republicans who screwed the pouch.

The result is we now have a major political party in full retreat staring down the barrel of a gun held by the most irresponsible pack of hoodlums ever set loose on a nation in over seven decades. And yes, I know the parallel, and yes, they are one in the same, minus the brown shirts and dumb mustaches.  Make no mistake, the Tea Party controls the Republican Party.  Period.

So, as the clock kept ticking toward Armageddon, Democrats kept agreeing to a number that kept moving further and further to the right, and just like that famous Bugs Bunny scene where he dares Yosemite Sam to step over this line only to keep redrawing the line every time old Sam stepped over, Democrats eventually ran out of room and got themselves backed into a corner. Rule number one in politics, when you allow your opponents to define your narrative you deserve every ounce of crow you end up eating.

Yes, they kept Planned Parenthood and the EPA from being gutted, not to mention Big Bird from being roasted. But, in the end, that’s about all they won. The cuts that the Democrats agreed to will end up costing tens if not hundreds of thousands of workers their jobs, causing unemployment levels to rise, just at a time when economists were predicting we were starting to emerge out of the darkness of recession into the light of recovery. I can just hear the Republican sound bites for the 2012 election year already, especially if unemployment goes back over 9%. This is what happens when ideology trumps logic and leaders fail to lead.

And speaking of leaders, last, but not least, the leader of the free world and commander in chief, Captain Pragmatic, Barack Obama. As is usual old give and take – he gave, the Republicans took – remained above the fray and damn near allowed the children to burn down the schoolhouse. On the one hand, by staying out of the squabble, Obama came off looking like the adult in the room; on the other hand, by waiting until the last seventy-two hours before a shutdown to intervene, he came off looking too aloof and too distant. Like the Libyan no-fly zone fiasco, he once more became a spectator when the nation needed an actor. Back-seat drivers posing as presidents are a dime a dozen and almost never get reelected. Know this much, Clinton would never have allowed Boehner and Harry Reid that much time to negotiate without getting in his two cents worth.

If Obama doesn’t improve his game significantly, Republicans are going to walk all over him on the debt ceiling debate, which is coming up quickly, and the 2012 budget talks, which promise to be one helluva brouhaha. The man desperately needs to grow a pair if his party is to survive.

For now, the first battle is behind us. It will be months before we know the ramifications of the deal that was struck. But at least, for now, both sides can claim a moral victory of sorts, while collectively holding their breath for the next onslaught that promises to be even more stomach churning. And meanwhile, a nation has but one question to ask: Can anyone drive this bus, without driving it over the cliff?

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