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Out of all the sound bites, quips and comments made about the tragicomedy enacted on Capitol Hill this past week, perhaps none sums up its smarmy essence better than one made by the now senior senator from Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren: "According to the S&P index, the government shutdown has delivered a powerful blow to the U.S. economy. By their estimates, $24 billion has been flushed down the drain for a completely unnecessary political stunt . . ." Further questioning said "political stunt," Warren asked, "$24 billion dollars. How many children could have been back in Head Start classes? How many seniors could have had a hot lunch through Meals on Wheels? How many scientists could have gotten their research funded? How many bridges could have been repaired and trains upgraded?"
Let's face facts: no one in Congress -- from the most chuckle-headed Tea Partyite to the most ardent liberal -- comes out of this government-shutdown-raise-the-debt-ceiling debacle covered in so much as an attogram's worth of glory. What Congress has put the American people, its economy and stability through is beyond unconscionable; it is despicable. That a couple of dozen so-called "representatives of the people" would hold the full faith and credit of the United States -- our global reputation and standing -- hostage for political reasons which even they could not verbalize , makes us look like what used to be derisively termed a "banana republic."
And although both sides are attempting to put their own smiley faces on the outcome -- of passing a mostly-clean C.R. and raising the debt ceiling for the nonce -- it is clear that we're going to go through this once again come next January and February. Maddeningly, political brinksmanship -- puerile, noxious, carcinogenic brinksmanship -- has become the new normal in political strategy. Even if Moodys, Fitch and Standard & Poor's don't lower our heretofore pristine credit rating, our international reputation has taken a serious hit. It brings to mind Cassio's lament when Iago asks him if he's hurt: "Reputation, reputation, reputation! O, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial. My reputation, Iago, my reputation!" (Othello: Act II, Scene 3).
What seems to have escaped notice during the ongoing political drama is how the world has been reacting to the diminishment of our dialogue -- of our inability to communicate or act like serious adults. Watching and monitoring the "food fight" on Capitol Hill has left much of the world asking whether we are really as unreasonable and self-destructive as we seem. Speaking to New York Times reporter Damien Cave, Ioanna Kalavti, a 34-year old teacher in Athens said: " It just goes to show that it's not only Greece that has irresponsible and shortsighted politicians . . . . We've been held hostage by our reckless politicians, and the interests they serve, for more than three years now. I guess our American friends are getting a taste of the same medicine." 33-year old SalomÃ³n Cavane, 33, the owner of a men's clothing business in Mexico City told journalist Cave "They are supposed to be an example of consensus and democracy for the rest of the world . . . . The fact they can't come to an agreement because of their pride and their need to show who has the power -- it is just ridiculous. I find it quite irresponsible as well."
In other words, regardless of whether Congress has reopened the government and staved off default for at least the next three to four months, the loss to our perceived stand with the rest of the world has taken a mortal blow. Playing chicken with America's political and economic stability is an unquestionably losing proposition. And, as with Cassio, once one's reputation has been severely compromised, ". . . what remains is bestial."
So what is the solution? How can we hope to stop playing these asinine games and get back to making politics the art of the possible? Depends on who's doing the talking:
- To the Tea Party, the answer is "total surrender" -- giving in
to their demands and cutting taxes, regulations and entitlements,
and getting the federal government out of the business of
governing. Clearly, a majority of the American public are in
strong disagreement with a world-view worthy of the mid-19th
century "Know Nothings."
- To those whose political problem solving skills are derived in
large measure from those anonymous "pass this along to 5,000 of
your best friends" emails, the solution is "throw every last member
of Congress out of office and start all over again." This is
shear twaddle. It takes at least a year to get a feel for Congress
-- of how it works, its rules, its physical layout -- before one
can even hope to begin making a contribution. "Fire" every
member of Congress and you're guaranteed that the only ones left
with institutional memory are the army of the unelected -- the
- Then there are those whose solution is for the Democrats to
take back the House of Representatives. As much as one might
personally find favor with this approach, it's not likely to
happen. Through gerrymandering, Congressional districts have
become the political equivalents of fortified medieval estates --
impervious to attack from both the inside and the
My solution incorporates none of the above. Humbly, I would suggest that Democrats and whatever pragmatists still serve under the Republican banner make common cause to both stifle and stultify the Tea Party faction within Congress. Goodness knows it could save the Republican Party from implosion even while helping make Congress an arena in which once again discussion trumps dissent and collegiality cancels out contention. A week ago I would have thought this a 1,000% pipedream. However, after listening to dozens upon dozens of sound bites, quips, and comments -- and seeing just how freaked out pragmatic Republicans are by the most recent polls -- I am now inclined to think that a "hands across the political aisle" approach is possible. God knows it ain't gonna be easy. But in light of what we've just gone through -- and knowing who's to blame for most of it -- is there any other choice?
In colloqual Spanish the Tea Party could easily be called los berrincheros -- spoiled brats who throw tantrums to get their way. In the real world of adults and children, parents aren't supposed to cower before angry, rebellious brats. What they're supposed to do is corral them, give them a prolonged "time out," and then teach them that in adult society, being a berrinchero is totally unacceptable.
We are sick and tired of berrinches.
-2013 Kurt F. Stone